Yes, but so is taking an airplane flight, climbing a ladder to change a light bulb, and driving your car to the grocery store. The vast majority of heart operations done in this country have excellent outcomes. As a surgeon, I don’t use the term “dangerous,” but instead I talk to my patients about “risks.” Virtually everything we do in life has risks, and heart surgery is no different. Generally, doctors advise a patient to have heart surgery when the risks of not having surgery are greater than the risks of having the surgery. The probability of a bad outcome with heart surgery is, to some extent, related to the complexity of the operation required. Most of the risk, however, is determined by the patient’s status going into the surgery. Does the patient have a lot of other chronic medical problems? Is the surgery an emergency? Is the patient elderly or frail? All of those factors, and others, are added together to determine the individual’s risk. If you are being considered for heart surgery, your surgeon should have a discussion with you about the risks and benefits of surgery, prior to the operation.
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While every type of surgery carries some risks, it is important to note cardiac bypass surgery has been well-studied and heart surgeons receive years of specialized training. Bypass surgery is only performed on serious, life-threatening disease, in response to emergency symptoms, such as shortness of breath, chest pain (angina) or discomfort in the arms, neck or jaw, and when imaging tests confirm the presence of dangerously blocked arteries.
More than 95 percent of people who undergo bypass surgery do not experience serious complications. For patients with advanced heart disease, it is more dangerous not to undergo bypass surgery if doctors have recommended it to restore blood flow. This is because the disease that blocked the vessels is progressive and will get worse, likely leading to blockages so substantial they starve the heart of oxygen and can cause disability or death.