Heart Surgery Goes High Tech

Minimally-invasive heart surgery reduces scarring, improves healing

by James Hemp, Cardiothoracic Surgeon

Just a few years ago, heart surgery often meant a large incision from chest to abdomen, hours of surgery, considerable risks and a week or two in the hospital followed by a long, difficult recovery.

In recent years, however, technological advancements have come into the mainstream, offering many patients less-invasive, more successful treatments for heart problems.

Minimally invasive robotic surgery

One such advancement is the use of minimally invasive robotic surgery to perform coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG).

Coronary arteries are the blood vessels that stem from the base of the aorta, the largest artery in the body; they supply the heart with oxygen and nutrients from the blood.

Any disease that blocks the coronary arteries can cause serious and often fatal complications especially if blockages in the coronary arteries prevent the heart from getting enough oxygen.

When the shortage of oxygen becomes critical, the heart muscle begins to die, leading to a heart attack.

Traditional coronary revascularization

CABG, also known as coronary revascularization, is a surgical procedure that reroutes blood flow around the blockages in the coronary arteries so that blood can continue to deliver oxygen to the heart.

Traditional coronary revascularization requires a six- to eight-inch incision down the front of the chest through the breastbone. The rib cage is then cracked and spread to provide the surgeon with access to the heart.

The heart is stopped and the patient is kept alive on a heart-lung machine while the surgeon takes arteries from the arm or leg, as well as leg veins, to create an alternate path around the coronary artery obstruction.

When the new path is in place, the patient’s heart is started up again.

Minimally-invasive robotic surgical procedures

Far less invasive than traditional CABG yet equally successful, robot-assisted CABG uses a robotic surgical system which enables the procedure to be performed through only a few small incisions between the ribs.

There is no need to break the rib cage or stop the patient’s heart. Instead, the surgeon inserts a high-definition camera, tiny surgical instruments and ultra-thin robotic arms, also inserted through the incision, to construct the detour around the blockage.

The camera transmits greatly magnified, three-dimensional images to the surgeon, who controls the movements of the robotic arms while seated at a console.

Because the robotic surgical system provides enhanced dexterity, precision and control, it allows a much greater range of motion and more precise movements than the human hand and wrist.

Repairing damaged mitral valves

Minimally invasive robotic surgery is also being used to repair damaged mitral valves. One of the four valves within the heart, the mitral valve the mitral valve allows blood to flow through the main pumping chamber in the lower left ventricle.

If the valve becomes diseased or damaged, it may not be able to do its job correctly, which can lead to heart failure. In such cases, the mitral valve may need to be repaired, or in some cases, it may need to be replaced.

As with CABG, traditional mitral valve repair involves a large incision, spreading the ribs, and stopping the heart, while robotic mitral valve repair generally enables the surgeon to perform the procedure through a few small incisions.

Risks and benefits of robotic-assisted heart surgery

As with any surgery, robotic-assisted heart surgery has some risks; however, because robotic surgery is much less invasive than traditional open-heart procedures, there are fewer complications such as infection or blood loss.

In addition, robotic surgery offers a number of significant benefits, including less trauma and pain to the patient, fewer days spent in the hospital, decreased need for pain medications and a faster recovery time and return to usual activities.

This Scripps Health and Wellness information was provided by James Hemp, MD, cardiothoracic surgeon at Scripps Green Hospital.