Open heart surgery

Also known as: Heart surgery - open


Open heart surgery is any surgery in which the chest is opened and surgery is done on the heart muscle, valves, arteries, or other parts of the heart (such as the aorta). The term "open" means that the chest is "cut" open.

The definition of open heart surgery has become less clear. New procedures are being done on the heart through smaller cuts. Some new procedures are being done while the heart is still beating.

Related topics include:

  • Aortic valve surgery -- minimally invasive
  • Aortic valve surgery -- open
  • Atrial septal defect repair
  • Cardiac transplant
  • Coarctation of the aorta repair
  • Congenital heart defect corrective surgery
  • Heart bypass surgery (coronary artery bypass graft -- CABG)
  • Heart transplant
  • Heart valve surgery
  • Hypoplastic left heart repair
  • Minimally invasive heart surgery (MIDCAB, OPCAB, RACAB)
  • Mitral valve repair
  • Mitral valve surgery -- minimally invasive
  • Mitral valve surgery -- open
  • Pediatric heart surgery
  • Tetralogy of Fallot repair
  • Total anomalous pulmonary venous return correction
  • Transplant of the heart
  • Transposition of great vessels repair
  • Tricuspid atresia repair
  • Truncus arteriosus repair
  • Ventricular septal defect (VSD) repair


A heart-lung machine is used in most cases during open heart surgery. While the surgeon works on the heart, the machine helps send oxygen-rich blood to the brain and other organs.

  • Your heart surgeon will make a 5 to 8-inch (13 a 20 cm) surgical cut in the chest wall. The breast bone is opened with a surgical saw to expose the heart. The surgeon can fix or replace a valve or perform bypass surgery.
  • During endoscopic surgery, your surgeon makes 1 to 4 small holes in your chest. Then your surgeon uses special instruments and a camera to perform the surgery.
  • During robot-assisted valve surgery, the surgeon makes 2 to 4 tiny cuts (about 1/2 to 3/4 inch or 1 to 2 cm) in your chest. The surgeon uses a special computer to control robotic arms during the surgery. The surgeon sees a three-dimensional view of the surgery on the computer. This method is very precise. However, it has not been proven so far to have better results than traditional surgery methods.

You will not need to be on a heart-lung machine for some types of surgery using smaller cuts. However, your heart rate may be slowed with medicine or a mechanical device used to position the heart to do the operation. If there is a problem with these procedures, the surgeon may have to open the chest to do the surgery.


Omer S, Cornwell LD, Bakaeen FG. Acquired heart disease: coronary insufficiency. In: Townsend CM Jr, Beauchamp RD, Evers BM, Mattox KL, eds. Sabiston Textbook of Surgery. 20th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2017:chap 59.

Review date:
December 07, 2016
Reviewed by:
Dale Mueller, MD, cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon, HeartCare Midwest; Chairman Department of Cardiovascular Medicine and Surgery, OSF St. Francis Medical Center; and Clinical Associate Professor of Surgery, University of Illinois, Peoria, IL. Internal review and update on 07/24/2016 by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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