What Is Heart Bypass Surgery?
Heart bypass surgery is when a surgeon takes blood vessels from another part of your body to go around, or bypass, a blocked artery. The result is that more blood and oxygen can flow to your heart again.
Imagine you’re on a highway. An accident causes traffic to pile up ahead. Emergency crews redirect cars around the congestion. Finally, you’re able to get back on the highway and the route is clear. Heart bypass surgery is similar.
It can help lower your risk for a heart attack and other problems. Once you recover, you’ll feel better and be able to get back to your regular activities.
Bypass surgery is also known as coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG). It’s the most common type of open-heart surgery in the U.S. Most people have great results and live symptom-free for a decade or more.
Why Do I Need Heart Bypass Surgery?
Bypass surgery treats symptoms of coronary artery disease. That happens when a waxy substance called plaque builds up inside the arteries in your heart and blocks blood and oxygen from reaching it.
Your doctor may suggest heart bypass surgery if:
- You have severe chest pain that your doctor thinks happens because several of the arteries that supply blood to your heart are blocked.
- At least one of your coronary arteries has disease that's causing your left ventricle -- the chamber that does most your heart's blood pumping -- to not work as well as it should.
- There's a blockage in your left main coronary artery, which gives your left ventricle most of its blood.
- You've had other procedures, and either they haven't worked or your artery is narrow again.
Heart Bypass Surgery Procedure
You’ll be asleep the whole time. Most operations take between 3 and 6 hours. A breathing tube goes in your mouth. It's attached to a ventilator, which will breathe for you during the procedure and right afterward.
A surgeon makes a long cut down the middle of your chest. Then they'll spread your rib cage open so that they can reach your heart.
Then the surgeon will remove a blood vessel, called a graft, from another part of your body, like your chest, leg, or arm. They'll attach one end of it to your aorta, a large artery that comes out of your heart. Then, they'll the other end to an artery below the blockage.
The graft creates a new route for blood to travel to your heart. If you have multiple blockages, your surgeon may do more bypass procedures during the same surgery (double bypass, triple bypass, etc.).
What Happens After Heart Bypass Surgery?
You’ll wake up in an intensive care unit (ICU). The breathing tube will still be in your mouth. You won’t be able to talk, and you'll feel uncomfortable. Nurses will be there to help you. They’ll remove the tube after a few hours, when you can breathe on your own.
You’ll also be hooked up to machines that monitor your vital signs -- like your heart rate and blood pressure -- around the clock. You’ll stay in the ICU for a few days before you're moved to a hospital room. You’ll stay there for 3 to 5 days before you go home.
Heart Bypass Surgery Recovery
It’s a gradual process. You may feel worse right after surgery than you did before. This is normal. Your body needs time to recover, but you’ll feel better each day. It'll take about 2 months for your body to feel better after surgery.
You’ll visit your doctor several times during the first few months to track your progress. Call them if your symptoms don’t improve or you’re feeling worse.
Talk with your doctor about the best time to return to your normal day-to-day activities. What's right for you will depend on a few things, including:
- Your overall health
- How many bypasses you've had
- Which types of activity you try
You'll need to ease back in. Some common plans include:
Driving. Usually 4 to 6 weeks, but you need to make sure your concentration is back before you get behind the wheel.
Housework. Take it slow. Start with the simple things you like to do and have your family help with the heavy stuff for a bit while you recover.
Sex. In most cases, you should be physically good to go in about 3 weeks. But you may lose interest in sex for a while after your surgery, so it could be as long as 3 months before you're ready to be intimate again.
Work. Apart from the physical requirements of your job, your concentration and confidence will have to come back. Most folks are able to resume light duty after about 6 weeks. You should be back to full strength after about 3 months.
Exercise. Your doctor may suggest something called cardiac rehabilitation. It's a customized, medically supervised exercise program. It also provides lifestyle education, which can include help with nutrition. Once the program is completed, you can work up to whatever fitness level you're comfortable with.
Heart Bypass Surgery Risks
All surgeries come with the chance of problems. Some include:
- Heart rhythm irregularities (arrythmia)
- Kidney problems
- Infection and bleeding at the incision
- Memory loss
- Reactions to anesthesia
Once you’ve recovered, your symptoms of angina will be gone or much better. You’ll be able to be more active, and you’ll have a lower risk of getting a heart attack. Best of all, the surgery can add years to your life.
Alternatives to Heart Bypass Surgery
There are a few less-invasive procedures your doctor could try instead of bypass surgery.
Angioplasty. A surgeon threads a deflated balloon attached to a special tube up to your coronary arteries. Once it's there, they inflate the balloon to widen your blocked areas. Most times, it happens in combination with the installation of something called a stent, a wire mesh tube that props your artery open.
There's also a version of angioplasty that, instead of a balloon, uses a laser to eliminate the plaque that clogs your arteries.
Minimally invasive heart surgery. A surgeon makes small incisions in your chest. Then, they attach veins from your leg or arteries from your chest to your heart, much like a traditional bypass surgery. In this case, though, your surgeon will put the instruments through the small incisions and use a video monitor as a guide to do the work. Unlike bypass surgery, your heart is still beating during this procedure.