Understanding Heart Valve Diseases and Treatment Options

As we age, our bodies begin to break down. From sore backs to bum knees, getting older impacts nearly every part of our body. The aging process also impacts the heart, the most complex organ in the body.

With age, the heart tends to enlarge slightly, developing thicker walls and slightly larger chambers or arteries. This can result in the narrowing of the aortic valve opening due to calcium buildup – a heart disease known as Aortic Stenosis. There is no way to prevent the disease nor are there drugs to treat it, leaving surgery as the only option.

Aortic Stenosis

Aortic stenosis restricts blood flow to the heart, causing fatigue, shortness of breath and even chest pain. It impacts 1.5 million Americans, mostly in their 70s, 80s and 90s.

Up until recently, the only treatment option was full open heart surgery for Aortic Valve Replacement (AVR). Doctors opened up the patient’s entire chest cavity, cut out the old valve and replaced it with a new one. The procedure can come with risks especially for older patients. AVR surgery can lead to a multi-week recovery in the hospital, along with a long rehabilitation process.

An alternative to open heart surgery has emerged called TAVR. The procedure is less stressful on the body and can offer much faster recovery times.

What is TAVR?

TAVR, or transcatheter aortic valve replacement surgery, has been performed in Europe since the 1990s and was brought to the United States in clinical trials around 2010.

In a TAVR, a new valve is folded up into a catheter, placed into the patient’s blood vessel in the groin and fed up the blood vessel until it reaches the base of the aorta (the largest blood vessel carrying blood from the heart to the rest of the body).

Once in place, doctors open a balloon which inflates the valve from the catheter. The old valve remains, and is pushed aside by the new valve. It is sealed, and blood begins to flow more freely within minutes.

The procedure can be done with light anesthesia, and most patients are out of the intensive care unit within a day and home from the hospital in three to four days. Patients then undergo ongoing cardiac rehab for a period of three to four months to build heart strength.

See the story of a recent TAVR patient and how the procedure has impacted his life:

What to Look For in Valve Replacement Options?

The TAVR procedure has transformed heart valve replacement options for patients, but it’s not the only option. In some instances, open heart surgery might be a better fit for a patient.

Your medical team will consider a variety of factors before recommending the best approach for you.

What should you look for when exploring major heart surgery options like valve replacement?

  • Experience by numbers – How many cases has the hospital done of the procedure you’re exploring? The more experience your medical team has with the procedure, the better. Aurora St. Luke’s has done more TAVR procedures than any other facility in Wisconsin.
  • The Team – Ask your doctor how long he or she has been doing these types of procedures. What is the overall depth of experience of everyone from the surgeon to the rehab nurses? You want the most experienced team you can find.
  • Product Innovation – Technology is rapidly changing how doctors do their job, so ask questions. Is your medical team up on all the latest innovations in procedures like TAVR? Are they using the latest devices? Do they participate in clinical trials to see the value of new products?

Many advanced, experienced programs are also now using Next Generation TAVR devices that allow more flexibility by surgeons to move the device to the best place on the aorta. You want the best for your body, and you deserve a team that can bring you the best products available.

With any heart procedure, risks are involved and every person’s body reacts differently to different situations. If you or your loved one faces heart surgery, ask your doctor about all the options available. Be informed. Be curious. And embrace the newest technologies like TAVR that are helping people get home faster and live a longer, happier life, free of pain and fatigue.

Meet the Author

Daniel O'Hair, MD is a cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon. He also serves as the director of the Surgical Robotics Program at Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee, WI.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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