What Is a Cardiac Surgeon?

Medically Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on November 06, 2022
4 min read

A cardiac surgeon is a type of cardiothoracic surgeon who specializes in operating on the heart, its valves and structures, and the important veins and arteries near it. General cardiothoracic surgeons focus on all of the organs of the upper abdomen, including the lungs, esophagus, and heart. Cardiac surgeons work only with the heart.

Another name for a cardiac surgeon is a cardiovascular surgeon. Additionally, a congenital heart surgeon is a cardiac surgeon who specializes in surgery for congenital heart defects, meaning the defect is present from birth. These surgeries are usually for infants and children, but sometimes adults too.

Cardiac surgeons are not cardiologists, or doctors who specialize in diagnosing and treating heart disease. Cardiologists typically refer people to a cardiac surgeon when the need arises, because most cardiologists do not perform heart surgeries themselves. They generally perform diagnostic tests and help people manage chronic heart conditions. They may perform more minor surgical procedures like placing stents to keep arteries open.

Cardiac surgeons perform surgery on the heart, the aorta, the pulmonary vein, and other important structures related to cardiac health. They do not typically diagnose heart disease. Before visiting a surgeon, you may already have a diagnosis from a cardiologist. After determining that you need surgery, they will refer you to a cardiac surgeon.

A cardiac surgeon will monitor your condition directly after surgery. Once you are recovering at home, though, you will typically return to the care of your cardiologist.

Cardiac surgeons attend medical school for four years. Following this, they complete a general surgical residency that lasts between five and seven years. The residency is a training period in which a more experienced surgeon supervises the resident.

After residency, a cardiac surgeon must train for an additional two to four years.

Coronary Artery Blockage

The build-up of cholesterol and plaque (fatty deposits) in the arteries carrying blood to your heart can lead to blockages. When the blockage gets too large, the constriction of the artery may result in a heart attack. Your primary care doctor or cardiologist may detect blockages before a heart attack occurs. In this case, they may refer you to a cardiac surgeon to repair the arteries.

However, some people discover they have a coronary artery blockage when they have a heart attack. Seek medical attention right away if you’re experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, which include:

If you do experience a heart attack, you may need surgery to repair your coronary arteries to prevent another one from happening.

Heart Valve Disease

The four valves of your heart allow blood to flow in the proper direction, keeping the heart working as it should. However, there are several types of heart valve defects that a cardiac surgeon can correct. Some of these are congenital. Others can develop in adulthood from infections or other health issues.

  • Stenosis is a heart valve defect in which the flaps of the valves become stiff and may even fuse together. This causes reduced blood flow due to a narrowing of the valve.
  • Prolapse in a heart valve causes regurgitation, meaning some blood leaks backward after being pushed through the valve.
  • Atresia is a congenital valve defect in which the valve is formed as a continuous sheet with no opening.

Aortic Aneurysm

Aortic aneurysms are a weakening of the aorta, the important artery that carries blood from the heart to the rest of your body. It causes a bulge in the artery which may lead to dissection or rupture. 

In an aortic dissection, blood leaks in between the weakened layers of the artery wall. In a rupture, the aneurysm bursts, leaking blood into the body.

There are two types of aortic aneurysms. An abdominal aortic aneurysm occurs below the chest. It is usually caused by hardened arteries. A thoracic one happens in the chest and is usually caused by high blood pressure or an injury.

Cardiac surgeons can repair aortic aneurysms, whether a diagnosis occurs before the event or after. However, repair for a rupture or dissection is emergency surgery. Surgery for an aortic aneurysm that has not yet ruptured is still urgent but can be scheduled for the near future.

Heart Failure

Heart failure, also known as congestive heart failure, has several possible causes including high blood pressure and blocked arteries. It is the weakening and stiffening of your heart. It may come on gradually or suddenly. 

Treatment for heart failure depends on the cause. Sometimes, changing lifestyle factors like diet and exercise can reverse heart failure, or improve the symptoms. In other cases, you will need cardiac surgery. Your cardiologist will help you decide which treatment options are best for you.

Irregular Heartbeat (Heart Arrhythmia)

Irregular heartbeats occur when there is a disturbance in the electrical impulses that control your heart. It results in fluttering heartbeats or a heart rate that is too slow or too fast.

Heart arrhythmias don't always require surgery. In fact, some instances of irregular heartbeat do not require treatment at all. However, certain cases are best treated with the surgical implantation of a pacemaker or implantable defibrillator. These devices regulate the electric currents in your body to create a more regular heartbeat. 

Typically, you will only see a cardiac surgeon if a cardiologist recommends it. A cardiologist will diagnose your condition and determine if you need surgery. If you do, they will refer you to a cardiac surgeon. In some cases, a different type of doctor, like a pulmonologist or gastroenterologist may make the recommendation, depending on the condition.

A need for cardiac surgery is the only reason to see a cardiac surgeon. Your cardiologist will otherwise help you manage your overall heart health.