What is coronary artery bypass surgery?

A coronary artery bypass is a type of heart surgery. It’s sometimes called CABG, for short. The surgery re-routes (or, bypasses) blood around clogged arteries, in order to improve blood flow and oxygen to the heart.

Why is this surgery done?

The arteries that bring blood to the heart muscle (coronary arteries) can become clogged by plaque (a buildup of fat, cholesterol and other substances). This can slow or stop the blood flow through the heart’s blood vessels, leading to chest pain and/or a heart attack. Increasing the blood flow to the heart muscle can relieve chest pain and reduce the risk of a heart attack.

How is a coronary bypass performed?

During a coronary bypass procedure, surgeons take a segment of a healthy blood vessel from another part of the body, and use it to make a detour around the blocked part of the coronary artery that’s causing a problem with blood flow.

Any combination of the following scenarios may occur:

  • An artery may be detached from the chest wall, and then the open end is re-attached to the coronary artery below the blocked area.
  • A long piece of a vein from your leg may be removed and re-used. In this case, one end is sewn near the blocked area (to create another outlet for the blood to flow through), and the other end is attached (or, grafted) to the coronary artery below the blocked area.

A patient may undergo one or more bypass grafts, depending on how many coronary arteries are blocked. In any scenario, a new route is established for blood to flow freely from the artery to the heart muscle.

What happens after coronary bypass surgery?

After surgery, the patient is moved to a hospital bed in the cardiac surgical intensive care unit. Heart rate and blood pressure monitoring devices continuously monitor the patient for 12 to 24 hours following surgery. Family members are allowed to visit periodically. Medications that regulate circulation and blood pressure may be given through an IV. A breathing tube will stay in place until physicians are confident that the patient is awake and ready to breathe on his or her own.

The patient may feel groggy and disoriented, and incision sites may be sore. Painkillers are given as needed. Patients usually stay in the hospital for four to six days (and sometimes longer), following surgery. During this time, tests will be done to assess and monitor the patient’s condition.

After leaving the hospital, the patient is usually enrolled in a physician-supervised cardiac rehabilitation program. This program teaches patients about stress management techniques and other important tips (including the importance of proper diet and exercise), and helps people rebuild their strength and confidence.

Post-surgery, patients are often advised to eat foods that are low in cholesterol and saturated fat (and to avoid trans fat), while increasing daily physical activity to help regain strength. Doctors also often recommend following an at-home routine of increased physical activity, like doing light housework, going out, visiting friends, and climbing stairs, among other things. The goal is for patients to successfully return to a normal, active lifestyle.

Most people will return to work within a normal time-frame following surgery. Ask your healthcare provider for his or her help in setting realistic goals for your return to work. The decision is usually based on the type of work you do, and the level of physical exertion required in your job.