Aortic surgery is a general term that applies to any type of surgery performed on the aorta, including procedures such as abdominal aortic aneurysm repair and bypass surgery. Heart surgery requires a highly experienced surgeon, and prompt treatment can be lifesaving.
What is aortic surgery?
The aorta carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body. The largest artery we have, the aorta can be affected by disease, injury or trauma that can only be treated or repaired through aortic surgery. Aortic surgery can include valve repair or replacement, surgery to repair the aorta itself, surgery to bypass the aorta or a combination of these procedures.
Who can have aortic surgery?
The best candidates for aortic surgery are people who:
- Are in good general health, outside of their specific condition that requires aortic surgery
- Have artery blockages that are too severe for angioplasty
- Have not seen improvement after pursuing less invasive treatment options
People with certain preexisting conditions and serious physical disabilities may not be good candidates for heart surgery. Your doctor will evaluate your overall health, as well as discuss the risks and benefits of aortic surgery with you, to decide on the best treatment option for your condition.
How does aortic surgery work?
The specifics of aortic surgery vary depending on the type of heart surgery being performed:
Any type of aortic surgery requires a high level of expertise and surgical skill.
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Benefits and risks of aortic surgery
Aortic surgery can not only save your life – it can also improve your quality of life. The health conditions that require heart surgery are quite serious and typically include chronic symptoms like shortness of breath, fatigue and chest pain that can negatively impact daily life.
That said, there are also risks associated with aortic surgery. Serious complications of having heart surgery can include cardiac complications (heart attack or heart rhythm abnormalities), lung complications (pneumonia or respiratory failure) and kidney failure. These complications are less likely in people who are good candidates for aortic surgery. Smoking increases your risk of having complications during or after heart surgery, as does having diabetes.
What happens during aortic surgery?
The exact steps your surgical team takes to perform your aortic surgery will vary depending on the specific condition being addressed. Generally speaking, any heart surgery is a major surgery that will likely require you to be evaluated by a cardiologist and/or pulmonologist before proceeding. You will have to have preoperative lab work that includes a chest X-ray and EKG.
Aortic surgery usually takes 2-4 hours or more and will require a short stay in the hospital. Your incision will likely be closed with staples, and you can expect some incisional pain. After surgery, your activity level can gradually increase, starting with getting out of bed the evening of or day after your procedure. You can start walking soon after that, as your catheters and tubes are removed.
You should be discharged from the hospital 5-7 days following heart surgery. Expected recovery time to the point where you are moving about comfortably should be approximately 2-3 weeks. You will likely be able to return to work in 2-6 weeks depending on the level of activity required and the type of aortic surgery you had.
It is not uncommon to have some redness in the area where you had your heart surgery. The redness should gradually fade. You will have lifting restrictions, and you should not carry anything heavy for at least 6 weeks while your wounds are healing. You should walk regularly and gradually increase activity.
The most common postoperative complication after aortic surgery is fluid drainage from the incision. Other potential complications include bleeding, seroma (the collection of lymph fluid that can cause lumps under the skin near incision lines), infection, blood clots (resulting in loss of circulation to legs, intestines or kidneys) and skin nerve damage (this is due to the unavoidable disruption of the nerves along the incision lines and can result in numbness or stinging across the thigh but does not affect the ability to walk).