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Coronary Artery Bypass Graft (CABG)

Coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG) is a type of surgery called revascularization, used to improve blood flow to the heart in people with severe coronary artery disease (CAD).

CABG is one treatment for CAD. During CABG, a healthy artery or vein from another part of the body is connected or grafted to the blocked coronary artery. The grafted artery or vein bypasses (that is, it goes around) the blocked portion of the coronary artery. This new passage routes oxygen-rich blood around the blockage to the heart muscle. As many as four major blocked coronary arteries can be bypassed during one surgery.



CABG is the most common type of open-heart surgery in the United States with more than 500,000 surgeries performed each year. At the University of Michigan, we perform more than 200 CABG surgeries a year.

CABG isn't used for everyone with CAD. Many people with CAD can be treated by other means, such as lifestyle changes, medicines and another revascularization procedure called angioplasty.

CABG may be an option if you have severe blockages in the large coronary arteries that supply a major part of the heart muscle with blood-especially if the heart's pumping action has already been weakened.

CABG may also be an option if you have blockages in the heart that can't be treated with angioplasty. In these situations, CABG is considered more effective than other types of treatment.

If you're a candidate for CABG, the goals of having the surgery are to:
  • Improve your quality of life and decrease angina and other symptoms of CAD
  • Resume a more active lifestyle
  • Improve the pumping action of the heart if it has been damaged by a heart attack
  • Lower the chances of a heart attack in some patients, such as those with diabetes
  • Improve your chance of survival
Repeat surgery may be needed if grafted arteries or veins become blocked, or if new blockages develop in arteries that weren't blocked before. Taking medicines as prescribed and making lifestyle changes that your doctor recommends can lower the chance of a graft becoming blocked.

In people who are candidates for the surgery, the results are usually excellent, with 85 percent of people having significantly reduced symptoms, less risk for future heart attacks and a decreased chance of dying within 10 years following the surgery.

Other Names for Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting

  • Bypass surgery
  • Coronary artery bypass surgery
  • Heart bypass surgery

Who Needs Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting?

Coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG) is only used to treat people who have severe coronary artery disease (CAD) that could lead to a heart attack.

Your doctor may recommend CABG if other treatments, such as lifestyle changes or medicines, haven't worked. He or she also may recommend CABG if you have severe blockages in the large coronary arteries that supply a major part of the heart muscle with bloodespecially if your heart's pumping action has already been weakened.

CABG also may be a treatment option if you have blockages in the heart that can't be treated with angioplasty.

Your doctor will determine if you'r a candidate for CABG based on a number of factors. These include the presence and severity of CAD symptoms, the severity and location of blockages in your coronary arteries, your response to other treatments, your quality of life, and any other medical problems you may have.

In some cases, CABG may be performed on an emergency basis, such as pending or during a heart attack.

Physical Exam and Diagnostic Tests

To determine if you're a candidate for CABG, your doctor will do a physical exam that involves checking your cardiovascular system, focusing on heart, lungs and pulse. Your doctor also will ask you about any symptoms you have, such as chest pain or shortness of breath, and how long, how often and how severe they are.

Medical tests will be done to find out which arteries are clogged, how much they're clogged, and whether there's any heart damage. Tests may include:
  • EKG (electrocardiogram)
  • Stress test
  • Echocardiogram
  • Angiography

Other Considerations

When deciding if you're a candidate for CABG, you doctor also will consider the following:
  • History and past treatment of heart disease, including surgeries, procedures or medicines
  • History of other diseases and conditions
  • Age and general health
  • Family history of CAD, heart attack or other heart diseases

Medicines and other medical procedures may be tried before CABG. Medicines that lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure and improve blood flow through the coronary arteries are often tried. A procedure called coronary angioplasty (also called balloon angioplasty) also may be tried.

What to Expect Before Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting

Tests may be done to prepare you for coronary artery bypass grafting, including blood tests, EKG, echocardiogram, chest x-ray, cardiac catheterization and angiography.

Your doctor will give you specific instructions about how to prepare for surgery. There will be instructions about what to eat or drink, what medicines to take, and what activities to stop (such as smoking). You will likely be admitted to the hospital on the same day as the surgery.

What to Expect During Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting

Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting (CABG) requires a team of experts. A cardiothoracic surgeon performs the surgery with support from an anesthesiologist, physician assistant, perfusionist (heart-lung machine specialist), other surgeons and nurses.

There are several different types of CABG. They range from traditional surgery in which the chest is opened to reach the heart, to a non-traditional surgery in which small incisions are made to bypass the narrowed artery.

Traditional Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting

This type of surgery usually lasts three to five hours, depending on the number of arteries being bypassed. Numerous steps take place during traditional CABG.

Anesthesia is given to put you to sleep. During the surgery, the anesthesiologist monitors your heartbeat, blood pressure, oxygen levels and breathing. A breathing tube is placed in your lungs through your throat, and connected to a ventilator (breathing machine).

An incision is made down the center of your chest. The chest bone is then cut and your ribcage is opened so that the surgeon can get to your heart.

Medicines are used to stop your heart, which allows the surgeon to operate on it while it's not beating. A heart-lung machine keeps oxygen-rich blood moving throughout your body. An artery or vein is taken from a different part of your body, such as your chest or leg, and prepared to be used as a graft for the bypass. In surgery with several bypasses, a combination of both artery and vein grafts is commonly used.
  • Artery grafts. These grafts are much less likely than vein grafts to become blocked over time. The left internal mammary artery is most commonly used for an artery graft. It's located inside the chest close to the heart. Arteries from the arm or other places in the body are sometimes used as well.
  • Vein grafts. Although veins are commonly used as grafts, they're more likely than artery grafts to develop plaque and become blocked over time. The saphenous veina long vein running along the inner side of the legis typically used.
After the grafting is complete, your heart is restarted using mild electric shocks. You're disconnected from the heart-lung machine. Tubes are inserted into your chest to drain fluid.

The surgeon uses wires that stay in your body permanently to close your chest bone and stitches or staples to close the skin incision. The breathing tube is removed when you're able to breathe without it.

Off-Pump Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting

This type of surgery can be used to bypass any of the coronary arteries. Off-pump CABG also is called beating heart bypass grafting because the heart isn't stopped and a heart-lung machine isn't used. Instead, the part of the heart where grafting is being done is steadied with a mechanical device.

Off-pump CABG may reduce complications that can occur when a heart-lung machine is used, especially in people who have had a stroke or "mini-strokes" in the past, who are over age 70, and who have diabetes, lung disease, or kidney disease.

Other advantages of this type of bypass surgery include:
  • Reduced bleeding during surgery and a lower chance of needing a blood transfusion
  • A lower chance of infection, stroke, and kidney complications
  • A lower chance of complications, such as memory loss, difficulty concentrating or difficulty thinking clearly
  • Faster recovery from the surgery

What to Expect After Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting

Recovery in the Hospital

After surgery, you will typically spend one or two days in an intensive care unit. Your heart rate and blood pressure will be continuously monitored during this time. Intravenous medicines (medicines injected through a vein) are often given to regulate blood circulation and blood pressure. You will then be moved to a less intensive care area of the hospital for three to five days before going home.

Recovery at Home

Your doctor will give you specific instructions for recovering at home, especially concerning:
  • How to care for your healing incisions
  • How to recognize signs of infection or other complications
  • When to call the doctor immediately
  • When to make follow-up appointments
You also may receive instructions on how to deal with common after-effects from surgery. After-effects often go away within four to six weeks after surgery, but may include:
  • Discomfort or itching from healing incisions
  • Swelling of the area where an artery or vein was taken for grafting
  • Muscle pain or tightness in the shoulders and upper back
  • Fatigue (tiredness), mood swings or depression
  • Difficulty sleeping or loss of appetite
  • Constipation
  • Chest pain around the site of the chest bone incision (more frequent with the traditional surgery)
Full recovery from traditional CABG may take six to 12 weeks or more. Less recovery time is needed for non-traditional CABG.

Your doctor will provide instructions on resuming physical activity. This varies from person to person, but there are some typical timeframes. Most people can resume sexual activity within about four weeks and driving after three to eight weeks.

Returning to work after six weeks is common unless the job involves specific and demanding physical activity. Some people may need to find less physically demanding types of work or work a reduced schedule at first.

Ongoing Care

Care after surgery may include periodic checkups with doctors. During these visits, tests may be done to see how the heart is working. Tests may include EKG, stress testing and echocardiogram.

CABG is not a cure for coronary artery disease (CAD). You and your doctor may develop a management plan that includes lifestyle changes to help you stay healthy and reduce the chances of CAD getting worse. Lifestyle changes may include quitting smoking, making changes in your diet, getting regular exercise, and lowering and managing stress.

In some cases, your doctor may refer you to a cardiac rehabilitation (rehab) program. These programs can help you recover through supervised physical activity and education on how to make choices that reduce your risk for future heart problems and help you get back to your regular lifestyle after surgery.

Doctors supervise these programs, which include counseling about lifestyle changes, as well as exercise training to build strength and energy. Cardiac rehab programs may be offered in hospitals and other community facilities. Ask your doctor whether you're a candidate for cardiac rehab.

Taking medicines as prescribed also is an important part of care after surgery. Medicines may be prescribed to manage pain during recovery; lower cholesterol, blood pressure and the chance of developing blood clots; manage diabetes; or treat depression.

What Are the Risks of Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting?

Although complications from coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG) are uncommon, the risks include:
  • Wound infection and bleeding
  • Anesthesia reactions
  • Fever
  • Pain
  • Stroke, heart attack or even death
Some patients can develop a fever associated with chest pain, irritability and decreased appetite. This is due to inflammation involving the lung and heart sac, and is sometimes seen one to six weeks after surgeries that involve cutting through the pericardium (the outer covering of the heart). This reaction is usually a mild, self-limited illness, but some patients may develop fluid buildup around the heart that requires treatment.

Use of the heart-lung machine also can cause complications. Memory loss and other changes, such as difficulty concentrating or thinking clearly, may occur in some people. These changes are more likely to occur in people who are older, who have high blood pressure or lung disease, or who drink excessive amounts of alcohol. These side effects often improve several months after surgery.

The heart-lung machine also increases the risk of blood clots forming in your blood vessels. Clots can travel to the brain or other parts of the body and block the flow of blood, which can cause stroke or other problems. Recent technical improvements in heart-lung machines are helping to reduce the risk of blood clots forming.

In general, the chances of developing complications are higher when CABG is done in an emergency situation (for example, if performed during a heart attack), if you're over age 70 years or if you have a history of smoking. Your risks also are higher if you have other diseases or conditions, such as diabetes, kidney disease, lung disease or peripheral vascular disease.

Source: National Heart Lung and Blood Institute

Please feel free to download and view our booklet on heart surgery information for patients and their families (1.7MB, PDF).