What Does a Cardiothoracic Surgeon Do? Answers to Common Questions

If you have ever been diagnosed with a specific medical condition involving the heart or chest, your primary care physician may have referred you for cardiothoracic surgery. In these highly complex procedures, specially trained providers use an extensive skill set to treat conditions related to heart disease, heart transplantation, and more.

Whereas other specialists focus on one specific part of the body, cardiothoracic surgeons operate on the heart, lungs and other organs in your thoracic region—the area from your neck to your abdomen.

Since cardiothoracic surgery is still a relatively new specialty, many may think the common myths about heart surgery hold true for cardiothoracic surgery, such as that the heart needs to be taken out during surgery or that having open-heart surgery can limit brain function.

However, those are not factual.

How Is Today’s Cardiothoracic Surgery Different From Traditional Heart Surgery?

Traditional or open surgery requires a long incision to allow surgeons to get their instruments in the body to work.

In open heart surgery, the surgeon cuts the sternum and spreads the ribs apart to perform surgery on the heart.

In minimally invasive cardiothoracic surgery procedures, the surgeon makes small cuts to access the heart. The surgeon then views the inside of the body with a tiny camera and operates with special instruments.

Different areas of cardiothoracic surgery include:

  • Cardiac surgery. Cardiac surgeons offer treatment for various heart issues, such as a damaged heart valve or complications of heart disease. They may perform coronary artery bypass surgery, heart valve surgery, aortic surgery and related procedures.

  • General thoracic surgery. General thoracic surgeons focus on the lungs, esophagus, chest cavity and the conditions affecting those regions. They may also treat or remove cancer or cysts that develop within the chest cavity.

  • Congenital or pediatric heart surgery. Congenital heart surgeons primarily operate on babies and children with damaged or malfunctioning hearts or heart valves. They concentrate on defects that have affected the child since birth, such as a septal defect—a hole between two chambers in the heart.

Which Conditions Can Be Treated With Cardiothoracic Procedures?

Cardiothoracic surgeons are equipped to treat any serious condition in the heart or chest region that aligns with their specialty.

Since cardiac surgeons concentrate on the heart, they care for patients with hypertension, high cholesterol, artery blockages, and heart failure.

A general thoracic surgeon will treat patients for cancers and cysts that may develop in the chest cavity.

A congenital heart surgeon will deal with arteries that are too narrow or not functioning properly in children.

What Is Recovery From Cardiothoracic Surgery Like?

Cardiothoracic surgery or bypass surgery completed with minimally invasive techniques shortens healing time.

Your cardiothoracic surgeon will continue to monitor your progress to ensure no complications will arise during your recovery.

While recovering from cardiothoracic surgery, you may:

  • Be monitored in intensive care
  • Find out how to recognize signs of complications
  • Have consultations with your surgeon
  • Have your blood pressure and breathing closely monitored
  • Learn how to care for yourself while you recover at home
  • Receive extra oxygen through an oxygen mask