Heart valve surgery repairs or replaces a heart valve that no longer functions properly. Surgeons can use valves taken from animals, made from human tissue or made from man-made substances (mechanical) to replace a human heart valve.

Our heart valves regulate the flow of blood through our heart, keeping it flowing in one direction. Flaps, called leaflets, open to allow blood to pass from the heart chambers into the arteries. When these leaflets don't open as widely as they should, not enough blood flows through the valve and the blood backs up in the wrong direction.

The decision whether to repair or replace a valve depends on a number of criteria, including your overall health and the condition of your damaged valve.

Preparation for Surgery

First, your doctor and you will decide whether to repair or replace your valve. Valve repair is most successful when there is limited damage. Replacement is recommended when the mitrial valve ring is hard and calcified, or when there's widespread damage to the valve and surrounding tissue.

Heart valve repair and replacement are open heart surgeries. Your doctor makes a large incision in your chest while you're under general anesthesia. A heart-lung machine takes over the circulation of your blood. To protect your heart muscle from damage, your heart may be cooled to slow or stop the heartbeat. Surgery typically lasts between 3 and 5 hours.

Recovery: What to Expect

Recovery usually requires a few days in a hospital intensive care unit. Full recovery can take several months while you wait for the surgical incision to heal and for your body to gradually build strength.

If you receive a mechanical valve you will take an anticoagulant medication for the rest of your life to reduce the risk of clotting because mechanical valves, which are made of metal or plastic, cause the formation of more blood clots than those made of animal tissue. But valves made of animal tissue also have a drawback-they will need to be replaced over time, and may require additional surgery.

Most people resume their normal activities after they recover, although they must monitor their condition throughout their lives and watch for symptoms of blood clots and infections.

For more information visit the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute or go to HealthKey.com's Heart Health page.