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What Is Heart Surgery?

Heart surgery is done to correct problems with the heart. Many heart surgeries are done each year in the United States for various heart problems.

Heart surgery is used for both children and adults. This article discusses heart surgery for adults. For more information about heart surgery for children, go to the Health Topics articles about congenital heart defects, holes in the heart, and tetralogy of Fallot.


The most common type of heart surgery for adults is coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG). During CABG, a healthy artery or vein from the body is connected, or grafted, to a blocked coronary (heart) artery.

The grafted artery or vein bypasses (that is, goes around) the blocked portion of the coronary artery. This creates a new path for oxygen-rich blood to flow to the heart muscle. CABG can relieve chest pain and may lower your risk of having a heart attack.

Doctors also use heart surgery to:

  • Repair or replace heart valves, which control blood flow through the heart
  • Repair abnormal or damaged structures in the heart
  • Implant medical devices that help control the heartbeat or support heart function and blood flow
  • Replace a damaged heart with a healthy heart from a donor

Traditional heart surgery, often called open-heart surgery, is done by opening the chest wall to operate on the heart. The surgeon cuts through the patient's breastbone (or just the upper part of it) to open the chest.

Once the heart is exposed, the patient is connected to a heart-lung bypass machine. The machine takes over the heart's pumping action and moves blood away from the heart. This allows the surgeon to operate on a heart that isn't beating and that doesn't have blood flowing through it.

Another type of heart surgery is called off-pump, or beating heart, surgery. It's like traditional open-heart surgery because the chest bone is opened to access the heart. However, the heart isn't stopped, and a heart-lung bypass machine isn't used. Off-pump heart surgery is limited to CABG.

Surgeons can now make small incisions (cuts) between the ribs to do some types of heart surgery. The breastbone is not opened to reach the heart. This is called minimally invasive heart surgery. This type of heart surgery may or may not use a heart-lung bypass machine.

Newer methods of heart surgery (such as off-pump and minimally invasive) may reduce risks and speed up recovery time. Studies are under way to compare these types of heart surgery with traditional open-heart surgery.

The results of these studies will help doctors decide the best surgery to use for each patient.


The results of heart surgery in adults often are excellent. Heart surgery can reduce symptoms, improve quality of life, and improve the chances of survival.

To understand heart surgery, it's helpful to know how a normal heart works. Go to the Health Topics article on How the Heart Works for more information.

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Last Updated: November 8, 2013