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Learning About Coronary Artery Bypass Graft Surgery

Coronary artery disease

What is bypass surgery?

Coronary artery bypass surgery is a surgery to treat coronary artery disease. The surgery helps blood make a detour, or bypass, around one or more narrowed or blocked coronary arteries. Coronary arteries are the blood vessels that bring blood to the heart. The surgery is also called bypass surgery or coronary artery bypass graft (CABG).

Your doctor will make a bypass using a piece of blood vessel from another part of your body. Your doctor will attach, or graft, this blood vessel above and below the blocked section of your artery.

How is bypass surgery done?

The most common way to do bypass surgery is through a large cut, called an incision, in the chest. This is called open-chest surgery.

Your doctor will make the cut in the skin over your breastbone (sternum). Then the doctor will cut through your sternum to reach your heart and coronary arteries.

The doctor will connect you to a heart-lung bypass machine. This machine will let the doctor stop your heart while he or she works. The doctor will use a blood vessel from your chest, arm, or leg to bypass the blocked arteries. When the blood vessels are in place, the doctor will restart your heart.

The doctor will use wire to put your sternum back together. The wire will stay in your chest. You will get stitches or staples to close the cuts in your skin. The cuts will leave scars that may fade in time.

Some hospitals offer less invasive bypass surgery. This includes surgery that is done without stopping the heart. The surgery also may be done through smaller cuts in the chest.

What can you expect after bypass surgery?

You will stay in the hospital for at least 3 to 8 days after the surgery. You will feel tired and sore for the first few weeks. Your chest, shoulders, and upper back may ache. You may have some swelling or pain in the area where the healthy vein was taken. These symptoms usually get better in 4 to 6 weeks. It may take 1 to 2 months before your energy level is back to normal.

You will probably be able to do many of your usual activities after 4 to 6 weeks. But for 2 to 3 months you will not be able to lift heavy objects or do activities that strain your chest or upper arm muscles.

After surgery, you will still need to make changes in your lifestyle. This lowers your risk of a heart attack or stroke. To help the bypass last as long as possible:

  • Take your heart medicines.
  • Do not smoke.
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet.
  • Get regular exercise.
  • Stay at a healthy weight or lose weight if you need to.
  • Reduce stress.

Smoking can make it harder for you to recover. It will raise the chances of your arteries getting blocked again. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.

You will likely start a cardiac rehabilitation (rehab) program in the hospital. This program will continue after you go home. It will help you recover. And it can prevent future problems with your heart. Talk to your doctor about whether rehab is right for you.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

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