March 14, 2022

About surgery to repair or replace a heart valve

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Symptoms, and surgical treatment, for damaged heart valves.

When valves in the heart are damaged or diseased and do not work the way they should, they may need to be repaired or replaced through heart valve surgery. 

The heart is a pump made of muscle. It has four pumping chambers: two upper chambers, called atria; and two lower chambers, called ventricles. Valves between the pumping chambers keep blood flowing in the correct direction through the heart. The heart’s four valves are the: 

  • Tricuspid, between the right atrium and the right ventricle
  • Pulmonary, between the right ventricle and the pulmonary artery (that artery connects to the lungs)
  • Mitral valve, between the left atrium and the left ventricle
  • Aortic valve, between the left ventricle and the aorta (the artery that sends blood to the rest of the body)

Why might I need heart valve repair or replacement surgery?

Conditions that may cause heart valve dysfunction are valve stiffness (stenosis) and leaking (regurgitation).

When one or more valves become stiff (stenotic), the heart has to work harder to pump the blood through the valve. Valves can become narrow and stiff from infections such as rheumatic fever or staphylococcus (“staph,” a bacterial infection); or from aging.

If one valve or more become leaky, blood leaks backward. This means less blood is pumped in the right direction. Valve repair or replacement surgery is done to correct problems caused by one or more diseased heart valves.

Symptoms of damaged heart valves

If your heart valve becomes damaged or diseased, you may have the following symptoms:

  • Dizziness
  • Chest pain
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Palpitations (when it feels like your heart is racing or fluttering)
  • Swelling (edema) of the feet, ankles or belly (abdomen)
  • Rapid weight gain because you’re retaining fluid

There may be other reasons for your doctor to recommend heart valve repair or replacement surgery.

Types of surgery for heart valve problems

Traditionally, open-heart surgery is used to repair or replace heart valves. Newer, less invasive techniques have been developed to replace or repair heart valves. Minimally invasive procedures use smaller incisions. Generally, the heart valve operations bring less pain during cardiac recovery, and a shorter hospital stay.

The diseased valve may be repaired using a ring to support the damaged valve. Another option is to remove the entire valve and replace it with an artificial valve through heart valve replacement surgery. Artificial valves may be made of carbon-coated plastic; or tissue made from animal valves; or human valves taken from donors. You and your doctor will talk about the pros and cons of each type and what heart valve surgery option might be best for you.

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Vanderbilt University Medical Center is a leader in treating heart valve disease with the newest transcatheter techniques. Vanderbilt’s team includes general cardiologists, interventional cardiologists and cardiac surgeons, all with advanced training and expertise in structural heart and valve disease. They treat patients with diseases of the aortic, mitral or tricuspid valve, from the routine to the complex.

Download a free treatment guide