Heart Valve Replacements are more common than you think. For those who have been diagnosed with a heart valve problem, it can feel overwhelming in the beginning. However, with the right cardiologist, treatment, and care, recovery statistics are very good. A well-performed operation has a high rate of long-term success. If at all possible, consider going to a healthcare facility with a strong vascular surgery specialty and a good track record in valve surgeries.
The valve problem may have developed due to age-related factors, but sometimes valve conditions develop due to illnesses, such as rheumatic fever and infective endocarditis. No matter the cause, advances in technology, improvements in heart valve design and surgical technique have made heart valve replacement a common procedure in most major hospitals.
One of the most common surgeries for the heart valve is the replacement of the aortic or mitral valve. For adults, pulmonary and tricuspid valve replacements are fairly uncommon. Heart valves are removed and a new valve (mechanical or tissue) is inserted in its place when repair is not an option. For heart valve replacement surgeries, careful considerations should be given to endurance, medication options and risks.
The decision of the new heart valve will be made based on several factors:
- Health conditions (in addition to your heart issues)
- Life expectancy and age
- Lifestyle (diet, exercise, activity levels)
Tissue Heart Valves
Tissue heart valves are created from tissues of animal donors’ valves or other animal tissue that is resilient and flexible. Most commonly used are the tissues from porcine (pig) heart valves or bovine (cow) cardiac tissue because they function like human heart valves. The tissue is removed from the donor and chemically treated to preserve the tissue. The chemical treatment will prevent any immunologic reactions once inserted in a patient. Tissue valves are able to last 10-20 years. For most patients, tissue replacements do not require the lifetime use for anticoagulation medicine (blood thinner) unless there is another condition that makes it necessary. For younger patients who need valve replacement and choose the tissue heart valve, a replacement surgery is most likely needed again later in life. Clinical studies have shown results of the tissue heart valve lasting anywhere from 8 to 20 years. According to these studies, aortic valve replacements last longer than mitral valve replacement.
- Does not require medicine
- Can last 8 to 20 years
- Provided by an animal donor
Mechanical Heart Valves
Mechanical heart valves are created to almost perfectly mimic a native heart valve. Mechanical valves are made of strong and long-lasting materials. Most of the manufactured heart valves will last through a patient’s lifetime. Similar to a natural heart valve, the mechanical valve will open and close with each heartbeat which allow the proper amount of blood flow through the heart. Although mechanical valves are designed to last a lifetime, they do require the lifelong use of anticoagulation medication. The clots are able to lodge in the mechanical valve’s flaps. Once in the flaps the clot can break off and form an embolism (traveling clot) which can lead to serious complications such as heart attack or stroke. In order to help prevent clots, the medication has to be taken daily and monitored with regular blood tests at your doctor’s office. The blood test monitors your INR (international normalized ratio). The INR results will allow your doctor to know if the time it takes for your blood to clot is comparable to an average.
- Lasts a lifetime
- Does not wear out or breakdown
- Requires daily medication
Donor Valve Implantation
The donor valve is the least common choice for heart valve transplants. Human heart valves have a lower risk of infection than the mechanical valve. It also does not require the need for anticoagulation medication. For younger patients who receive a donor valve, it can develop with the recipient. Therefore fewer repeated surgeries are needed.
- No medication required
- Can “grow” with younger patients
- Low risk of infection
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