“How Long Will My Dad’s Pumphead Last After Heart Valve Surgery?” Asks Rob

I just received a follow-up question from Rob about pumphead and memory loss after heart surgery that you might find interesting.

Rob writes, “Hi Adam – I have a quick question. My dad just had open heart surgery two days ago to repair his mitral valve (it was a 4+ for regurgitation). He also has had previous issues with atrial fib.  Today, he was having some issues remembering particular words/phrases. This concerns the nurses and us because of the possibility of brain issues after surgeries like these. I have a doctor-friend who says some of this is normal based on all the drugs he is on and the use of the heart-lung machine. Did you experience any of the brain and thought issues with your surgery? Do you have any insight on that? Thanks so much, Rob”

Although I did not have any direct cognitive problems following heart surgery, I have written about this post-operative complication on several occasions.

To help Rob, I offered him a link to a recent blog about pumphead and memory loss after bypass surgery.

After reviewing that page, Rob had one more question. He wrote back to me, “One thing not covered in your pumphead discussion is how long the ailment lasts?  Any thoughts? Obviously, everyone is anxious to get the patient “back to his normal self”, but we all forget how long the process can truly take.  So I hope we’re not just jumping the gun on all this.”

Again, Rob raises another great question. Unfortunately, I have not read many clinical studies about the length of time for which “pumphead” may exist as a post-operative complication for bypass patients. However, in 2001, researchers at Duke University conducted a study of 261 patients which was published in The New England Medical Journal.

Following bypass surgery, the patients were tested for their cognitive capacity (i.e. mental ability) at four different times: before surgery, six weeks, six months, and five years after bypass surgery. Patients were deemed to have significant impairment if they had a 20% decrease in test scores.

This study had four major findings:

  • Cognitive impairment can occur after bypass surgery.
  • The incidence of cognitive impairment was greater than most doctors would have predicted. In this study, 42% of patients had at least a 20% drop in test scores after surgery.
  • The mental impairment was not due to the patients’ age (which averaged 61).
  • The impairment was not temporary, as many doctors have claimed (or at least hoped). The decrease in cognitive capacity persisted for 5 years in some patients.

The results from the Duke study were compared to results from a similar study among patients of the same age who did not have bypass surgery, according to Richard N. Fogoros, M.D. The decline in mental capacity in those patients who had bypass surgery was 2-to-3 times higher over five years than in patients who did not have surgery.


The Heart Lung Machine

In review of this study, a sense of alarm may come over you. Please note, this study was performed eight years ago and there has been some debate over whether (or not) the heart-lung machine is the source of cognitive decline following bypass surgery.

Regardless… This is one more reason why you really need to conduct proper diligence and research prior to surgery. In my humble opinion, this potential risk is why so many patients search for the most skilled surgeons to perform their heart valve surgeries… to minimize their time on the “pump”.

Did you experience any form of cognitive issues after bypass surgery? If so, what was your experience? Please click here to leave your comments. (Or, scroll down to read 15+ patients comments on this topic.)

Keep on tickin!

Adam Pick
Written by Adam Pick

Adam Pick is a patient, author of The Patient's Guide To Heart Valve Surgery and the founder of HeartValveSurgery.com.

To learn how Adam has helped millions of people with heart valve disease, watch Adam's video, subscribe to his free newsletter, or visit his Facebook, or Twitter pages.

  • Sharon

    Hi I had my aortic valve (tissue) replacement November 2012 and I have experienced many of the above problems also. I am still constantly misreading things. I have many spelling errors and trouble seeing. I also was put on Plavix for 2 months after the surgery when I found I was having these issues. I saw a neurologist who specialized in ophthalmology who determined I had “floaters” or vitreous degeneration. I did attempt to go back to work but ended up getting long term disability. I now had to stop to think before I could do things. I had many ” blonde” moments for many months after the surgery which was so unlike my normal. I have to write things down and I could always remember things before. I did have cognitive testing by a psychologist August 2013 and it was determined that I did have issues. I also am an RN. I had headaches while in the hospital more so bothersome than the chest discomfort. I still get colored lights flickering almost on a daily basis and only last for a few minutes at a time. They just happen out of the blue and I have trouble seeing. I had a MRI/MRA and EEG in June after passing out one day but they were normal. It is hard because I did not have these issues previously but the surgery was necessary. I am a firm believer that things happen for a reason. I had worked for 40+ years. I did a lot of research on the computer after the surgery trying to figure out what was going on with me that was not normal.

  • CA

    I had emergent aortic valve surgery in August 2013 due to acute cardiac decompensation. I had no idea I had a bicuspid valve (age 42) and I was in 4+ regurgitation and going in heart failure rapidly. Since then I have had severe fatigue, short term memory issues, and depression. The symptoms have improved but I am not what I used to be. Has anyone had experience with this? Any good approaches at getting it fully resolved?

  • Denise

    I am recovering from post mitral valve surgery. I have started to see a decline in my cognitive short term memory and focus loss. I can’t remember simple passwords at work that I have known all my life. It is very scary to me that it seems to be getting worse. I had surgery 9 months ago and had a ring replacement with repair. Know one ever said anything about loosing my short term memory. I have know been reading about pump head and relate to these stories/articles. It says it can last up to 5 years.
    I just don’t know what to think!

  • LeAnn

    My 55yo husband is about 6 weeks CABG post op. He started having memory loss & confusion a few days ago. Rushed him to ER for fear of stroke/bleed/thrombosis. CT, MRI, Carotid US, blood work all neg. F/U in the near future with a neurologist to be scheduled And we were told not to get stressed out about this that it was quite common after surgery. Yesterday, my husband wanted to drive but I quickly had to get him out from behind the wheel because he could not judge stopping distances at stop signs and he finally stopped but we were well beyond the stop sign. He is also having problems with speaking his thoughts in a manner that makes sense to others. It’s like we only get part of what he is thinking and trying to communicate. Before surgery, he was very articulate, dealt mainly with measurements, numbers, and statistics and was an excellent and very safe driver. I feel very uncomfortable around him because it seems like he is a different person each day. I am very discouraged about what I’ve read in your blog. Afraid of what will come next and if this condition will ever right itself.

  • John

    I had a valve replacement and repair of an aortic aneurysm 9 years ago. I was back into the hospital 2 days after coming home because of total short term memory loss.. I have had 4 – 5 TIA episodes since the surgery and my cognitive abilities have been greatly reduced. I’ve had cognitive testing by a psychologist in September of 2012. The deterioration of cognitive abilities were confirmed, 7 years after surgery.

    My surgeon never discussed the likelihood of pump head symptoms. Obviously, the surgery was not selective, however, if I was an informed consumer I would have saved myself and family many anxiety filled days. Every other procedure seems to include a long list of possible complications. However, pump head seems to be the surgeon’s “dirty little secret”.

  • Bonnie

    Since my surgery to repair aortic root and asendung aorta i experience periods of lightheadedness and feel as I might lose consciousness. Could this be the term pumphead?

  • Robert Crutchfield

    I had mitral valve repair surgery Apr. 25, 2014. After 3-4 days in the hospital (Eisenhower Medical Center, Rancho Mirage, CA) I was transported to a nearby rehab facility. I spent three weeks there and had daily gentle physical therapy to help the muscular pain from having my chest muscles stretched apart during the surgery. I was kept on pain meds as well as put back on my atril fib Warfarin and blood pressure meds. After being released as ok to go home I became aware of the intermittent confusion and memory loss I was suffering. The most dramatic shock was when I couldn’t remember my longtime dog’s name. In fact I even argued with my partner when told the dog’s name. Even when he showed me the pet’s rescue-adoption papers I debated that I would never have named him THAT!! Physically I have improved daily, but the memory problems, though fewer, remain. I am 76 and at first thought it was just an aging problem, but have since spoken with several friends and relations who have had open heart surgery and over half have experienced the same problems. As a writer I have always been able to pull up the right words from my knowledge and memory. I am still having a problem with that and it is really depressing. I think that the surgeon should have told me about this possible after effect! When I questioned him during a followup exam, he said “Oh yes, but that usually goes away eventually.” Why has this “pumphead” been delt with and some kind of changes been made??

  • Glen Thornbury

    I was 12/27/2012 OHS New Aortic valve, a Pig Valve! in answer to your reply to the fine answer to the above. Yes my left lung colapsped twice, and had a bone infection on the right side. While in spelling and some subjects I’m poorer! In Science, Magnetical things, and some Phycics, I am Gifted, and have this Headpump thing. I figured out how to block the harmful rays from the Sun (solar winds) from things in space! This problem has been bothering NASA for a while. I’m planing on filing a patent showing how to do this, and ZAP OHS and now this Headpump thing is slowing me way down! SIR I’ve been researching M Faraday and J Maxwell’s Magnetic Induction of 1831 most of my life! So please help me SIR! HOW LONG will it last? IS THERE ANYTHING I can do got help it get better? My OTHER is one of the head RN’s at the VA, and says I’m looking better, BUT my intellect is so high I doubt everything! YOUR HELP IS NEEDED SIR!

  • Robert Crutchfield

    Perfect example: I just read a post MADE BY ME on June 30, 2014. I just wrote a post today, saying basically the SAME THING! I have NO MEMORY of the first post in June.
    I am really shocked now…..will this damn memory loss EVER END? I am going to call my surgeon tomorrow and ask HOW LONG was I on the heart-lung machine during my mitral valve repair surgery on April 25, 2014. See how this works folks!!!!!!

  • Ronda

    Triple bypass at 41 years old. 8 months post surgery. Short & long term memory loss. Forget words in mid sentence, issues with memory on all levels. Tell my husband the same things or ask about the same things regularly. Balance in walking seems to be more of a challenge than before surgery. Making notes to myself are a must to get task done. Not able to tolerate heat without feeling light headed. Wondering what the average time is to be on a heart & lung machine, for some of these heart procedures?
    Bless Our Hearts! ❤

  • Herbert Oestreich

    Am on the borderline of size to warrant resection of ascending aortic aneurysm, am 82 and greatly appreciate the comments on pump head syndrome,,,important to consider in my decision making……reasonably intelligent and would like to maintain what I have…was surgeon…still working but not operating. Pump head syndrome clinically much the same as multiple concussion sequelae…

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