What is a heart bypass?

What is a heart bypass?

A heart bypass helps to make sure blood flow isn't affected by blockages inside the coronary arteries. It re-routes the blood supply, to avoid any narrowed sections.

What happens in a heart bypass operation?

Heart bypass surgery involves grafting blood vessels around a damaged area of the heart. Usually, this is usually done by taking a vein from the leg or an artery from the arm. It’s quite common to do two, three or four grafts in one operation, and these are known as double, triple or quadruple bypasses respectively.

To access the heart, surgeons cut down through the breastbone, leaving a long scar down the centre of the chest (hence the term ‘member of the zipper club’), but the breastbone doesn't always need to be cut. If it can be avoided, it will be: it’s known as minimally-invasive surgery.

During the operation, a heart-lung bypass machine will circulate blood around the body. In an alternative method, called ‘beating heart surgery’, a surgeon operates without this machine – but in both cases, the graft is then carried out, leaving small scars where the veins and arteries were taken from.

What are the risks of a heart bypass?

Around 20,000 of these procedures are completed every year: they’re not an easy operation, but they’re relatively common now. There are risks, and there’s always a possibility of negative side-effects. Some complications that could occur include:

  • Memory problems
  • Heart attack
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Infection

These vary depending on age, and medical staff will always explain what the risks are in detail before going ahead with an operation. If you’re worried about going ahead, do talk to a surgical team and ask them to explain the risks as well as the benefits in detail – they’ll have your medical history to hand, and be able to explain more about your individual situation.

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