Replacing a faulty heart valve can restore healthy circulation, but the procedure carries some risks. These include blood clots, infection, and other complications. Generally, the outlook is usually positive.

Heart valve replacement can be a life saving procedure that restores healthy heart function and quality of life. Still, like any procedure, it carries some risk of complications. In some cases, the replaced valve fails or reaches its lifespan, needing to be replaced.

In many cases, when a heart valve cannot be repaired, the only remaining option is to replace the valve. Heart valve replacement can sometimes be done using a catheter in a minimally invasive procedure, though it often requires open heart surgery.

Of the heart’s four valves, the aortic and mitral valves are most often replaced. Procedures to replace the pulmonary or tricuspid valves are performed far less frequently.

Read on to learn more about heart valve replacement, as well as its risks and benefits.

If you have a serious heart valve disorder that requires valve replacement, it’s important to know what complications can follow the procedure.

Some potential complications include:

  • arrhythmia (heart rhythm disturbance)
  • bleeding at the site of the surgery cut (incision)
  • blood clot formation, which can lead to a stroke or heart attack
  • infection at the incision site or within the new valve
  • valve failure

The type of procedure can affect complication risks.

A 2018 study compared surgical aortic valve replacement (SAVR) with minimally invasive transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR).

TAVR is performed using a catheter that’s run through a blood vessel from the leg or arm up to the heart. The research suggests that major complications are much less common with TAVR.

Transcatheter mitral valve replacement (TMVR) is a much less common procedure, though a 2021 report suggests that it’s becoming a safer option and is also filling an unmet need for people whose bodies are too weakened or otherwise ineligible for open mitral valve replacement surgery.

The type of valve used in a replacement procedure may also affect complication risk.

Replacement valves may be mechanical or biological, which means they use tissue from an animal, such as a pig or cow, or from human tissue.

Mechanical valves are more likely to lead to blood clots, so anyone who receives a mechanical valve must commit to long-term antithrombotic therapy to reduce the risk of clot formation. This therapy involves taking anticoagulant and antiplatelet drugs.

A 2018 report on prosthetic valves suggests that because bleeding complications are associated with long-term antiplatelet use, mechanical valves do pose greater bleeding risks over time.

This is because for both types of valves, antiplatelet therapy is used. But while antiplatelets are often prescribed for 3–6 months for prosthetic valves, they’re typically taken for life with mechanical valves.

If your valve disorder worsens to the point where surgery is necessary, it’s critical that you take it seriously.

The American Heart Association suggests that once a condition such as aortic valve stenosis becomes severe, without treatment, only about 1 in 5 people live another 5 years.

Though heart valve replacement surgery is usually successful and can extend life expectancy and improve quality of life, it’s still considered a major surgery with some potentially serious risks or complications.

A 2021 study of 1,870 older adults who had surgical aortic valve replacement found that about 8% had at least one serious complication, such as bleeding or stroke, and 3.2% died in the hospital.

Surgical valve replacements usually take 2–4 hours. However, if there are bleeding problems or challenges in getting the new valve to fit securely in place, the procedure may require more time.

Minimally invasive valve procedures typically take 1–2 hours, though they also can take more time if there are any unforeseen problems.

Heart valve procedures are generally safe, but there are risks with any procedure. Surgical and catheter procedures may cause damage to blood vessels, though these injuries can often be treated immediately.

If you are having valve replacement surgery, your heart must be stopped. This requires general anesthesia and the use of a bypass machine, which takes over the role of the heart in maintaining circulation during the operation.

Though they’re uncommon, complications related to cardiopulmonary bypass can include injury to the central nervous system, lungs, and kidneys, as well as raising the risk of blood clots.

Full recovery from a heart valve replacement can take up to 4–8 weeks, though minimally invasive procedures often require a shorter recovery time.

Before you leave the hospital, you should receive instructions about when it’s safe to resume activities such as lifting heavy objects and driving.

With a typical recovery, you should experience a boost in energy, a reduction in symptoms, and a greater quality of life. Your endurance and ability to exercise should improve, too.

To maintain an improved quality of life, it will be important to follow your treatment team’s recommendations and make heart health a priority for the rest of your life.

Signs of a failing heart valve replacement are usually similar to those experienced prior to receiving a new valve. Some of the most common signs include:

  • chest pain or discomfort
  • fainting or lightheadedness
  • shortness of breath

Your healthcare team should go over these and any other signs to look out for before you leave the hospital. If you experience any of these, call 911, as they could be a sign of a medical emergency.

You should try to follow a heart-healthy diet after valve replacement.

Consider adopting a Mediterranean-style diet or the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, both of which can help with recovery and support long-term cardiovascular health.

You should also try to limit your intake of:

  • added sugars
  • alcohol
  • processed foods
  • sodium (salt)

Early in your recovery, you may notice that the operation or the medications you’re on have changed your sense of smell or taste. This may affect your appetite. But rather than skip meals, try to eat smaller but more frequent meals until your usual tastes and appetite return.

Living with a faulty heart valve can affect every aspect of your health if the condition worsens. Though it’s a major decision and carries some risks, heart valve replacement may save your life.

If you have been diagnosed with a valve disorder, talk about your treatment options and whether valve repair or valve replacement are the best options for you.

If replacement is your only realistic option, you can discuss if a minimally invasive procedure is possible and whether a mechanical or biological tissue valve is the right choice for you.