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Heart Valve Replacement Surgery: Life After Surgery

Topic Overview

After you have recovered from your heart valve replacement surgery, you will probably feel better than you did before you had the surgery.

It may take several weeks for your recovery, including healing your incisions. Then you should be able to resume most of your normal activities.

After surgery, you will have regular doctor visits to check your heart and your new valve. You will take blood thinning medicine to prevent blood clots after surgery. And you might need antibiotics to prevent infections.

Keep in mind that an artificial valve will not work as well as an undamaged natural valve. So even though your heart function is improved, it may not recover to completely normal levels. If your heart was already severely affected before your surgery, you may still have symptoms of heart disease.

Regular doctor visits

After surgery, you will have regular checkups so your doctor can check your heart and your heart valve.

It is important to know that you aren't cured after you have had a valve replacement. You still have a serious heart condition that must be monitored.

All artificial heart valves eventually wear out and need to be replaced. A mechanical valve can last at least 20 to 30 years. A tissue valve can last at least 8 to 15 years.

Your doctor will check the new valve periodically for signs that it is wearing out. Your doctor will ask you how you are feeling and if you have any new symptoms or changes in symptoms. These symptoms are similar to those that signaled that the original valve was wearing out: a heart murmur and sometimes symptoms such as shortness of breath and fainting. These signs may be spotted during visits to your doctor.

You might have tests, such as an echocardiogram, to check how well your heart is working. Your doctor will also check for other heart problems.

Blood thinners

If you have a mechanical valve (made of plastic, metal, or cloth), you will likely take an anticoagulant such as warfarin (for example, Coumadin) for the rest of your life to keep blood clots from forming on your valve surfaces.

If you have a biological valve (made of animal or human tissue), you need to take anticoagulants for a few weeks or months after surgery while your body adapts to your new valve. Your doctor will tell you when you can stop taking anticoagulants. Then you will likely take low-dose aspirin to prevent blood clots.

You must be careful when using blood thinners, because there are risks associated with their use. The major risk is that your blood may become too thin. This means you will bruise more easily, bleed more heavily from minor injury, or even bleed spontaneously. This bleeding risk is higher if you take an anticoagulant such as warfarin. But you can do some things to be sure you are taking blood thinners safely. For example, you can take extra care to prevent injuries.

Antibiotics

If you have an artificial valve, you may need to take antibiotics before you have dental work or surgical procedures. The antibiotics help prevent an infection in your heart called endocarditis.

References

Other Works Consulted

  • Whitlock RP, et al. (2012). Antithrombotic and thrombolytic therapy for valvular disease: Antithrombotic therapy and prevention of thrombosis, 9th ed.—American College of Chest Physicians evidence-based clinical practice guidelines. Chest, 141(2, Suppl): e576S–e600S.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Rakesh K. Pai, MD, FACC - Cardiology, Electrophysiology
David C. Stuesse, MD - Cardiac and Thoracic Surgery
Last Revised November 11, 2013

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