Artificial Heart Valves

What is an artificial heart valve?

An artificial heart valve is a man-made device used to replace a heart valve that is not working well. The heart valves work with each heartbeat to keep blood flowing to the body. Sometimes disease may damage a heart valve so that it leaks or stops working. When damaged valves cannot be fixed, artificial valves may be used to replace them. This is done during an open-heart surgery called heart valve replacement.

What kinds of artificial heart valves have been developed?

In general, there are 2 kinds of artificial heart valves: mechanical valves and biological valves.

  • Mechanical valves are made completely from man-made materials. The mechanical valve used most often is a bileaflet valve. The bileaflet valve consists of 2 hinged flaps called leaflets. They are made of very light and long-lasting material (pyrolytic carbon).

    When you have a mechanical valve, you must take blood-thinning drugs (anticoagulants) to reduce the risk of blood clots.

    The main advantage of mechanical valves is that they last a very long time—in most cases 20 years or more.

  • Biological valves are made from human or animal tissue that has been specially treated so that your body does not reject it. The valves are attached to man-made materials to give them support. Most biological valves are made from animal tissue: porcine valves are made from pigs, and bovine valves are made from cows. Some valves come from human donor hearts.

    If you have a biological valve, you may need to take a blood thinner right after surgery but not long term. Discuss this with your healthcare provider.

Biological valves often don’t last as long as man-made valves. This means that a mechanical valve may be better for you if you are young and expect to live many more years. Mechanical valves can reduce the number of repeat valve surgeries you will need over your lifetime. If you are an older adult, a biological valve may be better for you. Also, when you are older, you may have a higher risk for bleeding and so may be able to avoid taking a blood thinner for the rest of your life if you have a biological valve. (Blood thinners increase your risk of bleeding.)

No artificial valve is perfect. However, it can improve your quality of life. In many cases it can help you live longer.

Written by Donald L. Warkentin, MD.
Published by RelayHealth.
© 2012 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.