Thoracotomy Vs. Sternotomy For Vicki’s Mitral Valve Surgery… Any Female Perspectives?

By Adam Pick on September 16, 2008

Vicki (pictured below) recently sent me a question regarding her upcoming mitral valve surgery. While I have some ideas for Vicki, we thought it might be helpful for Vicki to gather feedback from other patients – especially females. That said… Do you have any thoughts for Vicki? Here is what she writes:

Hi Adam,

I’m scheduled for mitral valve surgery (hopefully repair, not mitral valve replacement) on September 26. I’m a very fit 54-year old woman that climbs mountains, bikes and generally expects a lot of her body!



My surgeon, Doctor Vincent Gaudiani, has given me the choice of a thoracotomy or a midline sternotomy. Considering this choice, I am looking to find one or more women that opted for the thoracotomy, and had the procedure done one or more years ago.


Thoracotomy – Incision Diagram


The pros of the thoracotomy procedure are: 1) aesthetics and 2) no bone breakage. BUT, I’m wondering what the long-term effect of cutting through the intercostal muscles has on mobility, exercise, yoga, etc.

I want to make sure that a thoracotomy is the best option for someone that is very active. It would be a bummer to pick that option, only to find out that my mobility has been lessened – most likely due to pain – over time.

Thanks for your help on this! I just ordered your book! Best regards, Vicki. To provide your thoughts on thoracotomy and sternotomy, please scroll down to leave a comment for Vicki. In advance, thanks for your help!

Scroll down to see 35+ patient comments.

Keep on tickin!

Written by Adam Pick
- Patient & Website Founder

Adam Pick, Heart Valve Patient Advocate

Adam Pick is a heart valve patient and author of The Patient's Guide To Heart Valve Surgery. In 2006, Adam founded to educate and empower patients. This award-winning website has helped over 10 million people fight heart valve disease. Adam has been featured by the American Heart Association and Medical News Today.

Adam Pick is a heart valve patient and author of The Patient's Guide To Heart Valve Surgery. In 2006, Adam founded to educate and empower patients. This award-winning website has helped over 10 million people fight heart valve disease. Adam has been featured by the American Heart Association and Medical News Today.

Mary Curtis says on September 16th, 2008 at 7:54 pm

I wish you the best with your surgery, I am not far behind you having just met with Dr. Gaudiani last week. Like you I am hoping for MR repair.

My research has surfaced the consistent report that thoracotomy is more painful that sternotomy. Also, I wonder how long it is that one simply cannot wear a bra?!!

On the other hand the thoracotomy scar will likely limit one’s ability to wear v-neck shirts and many bathing suit styles.

Linda Giannopapas says on September 16th, 2008 at 10:18 pm

I too wish you the best with your surgery. I had minimally invasive MR repair in May and wore a bra home from the hospital. I actually found it to be more comfortable. I know you wanted response from people who had surgery more than a year ago but I think you will be able to resume your activities quickly. My scars are fading already. My only problem has been with the groin incision which has caused numbness in my leg which makes stairs a chore. Pain was managed with tylenol for several weeks. Minimally invasive is nothing like what Adam went through!

Erica Iantorno says on September 16th, 2008 at 10:21 pm

Dear Vicki, My mother just went through a valve relacement with the same Doctor! He is the best in the field. She had the procedure where they break the bone,but apparently this was a better option for her. I am studying to be a Naturpathic Doctor and I know quite a bit about both Alternative and Alopathic medicine. The thoractomy is a bit more taxing on the muscles. You will definitely need to lay off the exercise while healing doue to muscle fibre repair and a certain level of pain. You are in Good hands. All the best. Heal well. Sincerely Erica Iantorno

Sandra says on September 16th, 2008 at 10:55 pm


I had the thoracotomy on July 16 (2 months ago today) for mitral valve repair and aneurysm repair. Not having the sternotomy I can’t say which is better but I was told that the recovery time for the thoracotomy is much less. I, like you, am quite active, 51 years of age and I feel that the recovery is going better than I imagined. In the beginning you feel some pain in your ribs each time you breathe in which the doctors say you don’t feel with the sternotomy but your healing time is quicker. My scar is only about 2 1/2 inches long and then you have one on your leg plus 5 or so smaller ones around the main incision. I started cardiac rehab yesterday and felt really good. I also went back to my old exercise class (aerobics, cardio and weights) last night and was surprised at how much I could do. If you have the opportunity to go to rehab I would recommend it just for your piece of mind. Initially, it is very scary not knowing what you can and can’t do especially if you are normally very active. The only thing I was told not to do was weights for another month. I have never felt better!!! If I were you I would opt for the thoracotomy – highly recommended by my surgeon. Good Luck!

Tanya says on September 17th, 2008 at 9:16 am


I am a 44 year old female. I had a thoractomy five years ago to repair a mitral valve. It takes a little time but you will get your mobility back and will be able to do all your activities. I work as an athletic trainer at a large high school. I take care of injuries to athletes on the field and rehabilitation in the clinic (including big football players). The surgery did not limit me and I was back working in a couple months.

As far as long term effect; I do have a loss of sensation in my right breast. Something my surgeon neglected to tell me. But it was a minimal trade off. I was wearing a bikini two months after surgery.

I agree you should go to cardiac rehab. It helps give you the confidence to go back to your active lifestyle.

The most important advise I can give you is to find out the number of thoractomies/mitral valve repairs your surgeon has performed and his success rate. This is something the office should have. Sounds like you are in good hands by the other comments but it doesn’t hurt to have all the facts.

Hope this helps. Good luck on your surgery and remember to give yourself time to heal.

Vicki says on September 17th, 2008 at 12:37 pm

Thanks to Adam and ALL that have answered my post. I’m leaning toward the thoracotomy…altho this is the first I’ve heard that the right breast may become numb. I will definitely ask Dr. Gaudiani about that risk at my pre-op vist. I had a left breast mastectomy 15 years ago (I’m doing great!), and don’t like the thought that my remaining breast may lose feeling.

Again, thanks…it helps to hear from all of you that have walked this road ahead of me!

Rose says on September 18th, 2008 at 8:33 pm

I had mitral valve repair and MAZE procedure through a right thoracotomy on July 16 at Cleveland Clinic. It was an extremely painful procedure and left me with a lot of numbness and pain in my leg and right breast and chest. A lower sternotomy was planned but my surgeon changed the approach the morning before surgery so I did not have the opportunity to research. I was told by the staff that the right thoracotomy is more painful but I am reassured that in the long run it is a much better choice. I know that is your concern. Immediately following the surgery I was very angry about the level of pain for the trade off of cosmetics (I am 39 years old). Over the last two months as the pain has improved I am letting that go. You should also thoroughly discuss the risks of conduction system and rhythm issues with your surgeon also. That is what I am dealing with now. I wish you the best of luck.

CL says on September 19th, 2008 at 10:06 am

I had the minimally invasive procedure to repair my mitral valve 6 weeks ago. As I am in my early 30s, I was pleased the surgeons were able to repair my valve through such a small incision. While you can’t avoid the initial pain, it was relatively short lived. I still have some residual soreness and a little numbness, but nothing compared to the discomfort and pain experienced with a sternotomy. I am already back to the gym and doing some light weights.

Rebecca Roberts says on November 24th, 2008 at 7:44 pm

I am having mitral valve surgery on 1/5/09. I am a 58 yr.old, active (long distance runner, weights/strength training) female. I too am faced with the decision: sub-mammmary thoracotomy vs. minimally invasive sternotomy (6 inch incision). I am most concerned about residual pain/functional issues; and least concerned about cosmetics.
I am wondering what choice Vicki made; as well as any further input from others.

Paris says on January 17th, 2009 at 10:06 am

I’m 3 weeks post-op, mitral valve repair via thoracotomy. I did have a couple dicey days of poor pain management. The key for me was the addition of ibuprophen. It took care of the bone pain while darvocet kept the incision pain at bay. The combination has been working perfectly. (Also, using a pillow to prop up my right arm helped to take pressure off the incisions and rib.) Once the pain was under control, my rate of recovery greatly increased. Each day is noticeably better. With regard to breast numbness, my understanding is that using the mammary blood vessels for the heart lung hook up can cause this to happen. My surgeon used the axillary blood vessels leaving a 1 inch incison at my arm pit. So far I haven’t noticed any numbness around my breast. Best wishes to all.

Amy says on February 2nd, 2009 at 7:35 am

I had a mitral valve replacement via sternotomy in August 2007. I thought I was going to die immediately following that as no one prepares you enough for the initial aftermath. Now I’m 1 1/2 years post surgery and generally feel good. I still have pain when my 3 year old presses on the incision and find that I am probably over cautious with my activities. I was told that cardiac rehab was not needed for my valve replacement which I don’t think I now agree with. I’m told that there’s not always a choice on type of surgery which depends on what the surgeon believes will work best with replacement vs. repair.

Anne says on March 3rd, 2009 at 10:32 am

I have moderate mitral regurgitation, with paroxysmal atrial fibrillation and atrial flutter. I have had 2 unsuccessful cardiac ablations , one where they severed my carotid artery, and another 3 weeks ago where they cut my femoral artery. I stiil have atrial flutter and don’t not want another ablation. I am leaning towards a minimally invasive mitral repair as think this may be the major cause of my arrhythmias and wondered who is the BEST surgeon to see in the Philadelphia area and if there is none here,who is excellent, I will travel anywhere! I am more or less housebound now, heavily medicated to keep the flutter away so I don’t need to have another cardioversion. I had 2 last week alone! Please advise me.I am a very trim, active 68 year old who is generally very healthy and has an extremely healthy life style. Yhank you!

Carol Blum says on March 23rd, 2009 at 3:29 am

I am a 69 year female. Have just found I have a tricuspid valve with regurgitation. I am alone and would like to know if any one has taken care of them self. Is this possible?

Lisa says on March 23rd, 2009 at 12:32 pm

I am 35 and recently had mitral valve repair and was very glad to have someone staying with me after my surgery. I think at the very least you need to have someone come daily and help you out. Even basic house hold chores are very difficult after such a major surgery. Good Luck.

chris says on April 23rd, 2009 at 3:06 pm

Hi, I am 47 year old male. 3 weeks post-op from Mitral Valve repair via thoracotomy. In the last two days I have increased my walking to about 2 miles a day. I did have help when I came home. I would recommend at least 2-3 weeks help. At 2 1/2 weeks I began basic household chores, dinner for the family, etc. I still have a slight bit of discomfort, but sleep on my right side and am not taking anymore meds. I did have a lot of problems with nerve damage to my femural artery from the heart lung machine, but in the last two days the pain has subsided, only numbness exists. Hope this helps

Jo says on April 23rd, 2009 at 9:07 pm

To add to Vicki’s story:
I had a recent mitral valve repair done with a 6″ sternotomy incision. I had the possible option of having the repair done robotically but my physician Dr. Bakhos with Loyola Hospital in Chicago recommended to do a sternotomy because the robotic repairs take longer. My mitral valve had both anterior and posterior leaflets gone bad plus a small growth that needed to be removed from the ventricle and Dr. Bakhos felt I would be on the heart-lung machine too long. In this day and age of mitral valve repair, I would recommend if possible going to a hospital that has the da Vinci robotic system available and making that your first choice.
For the record, I had the surgery Monday March 30 and left the hospital Friday with only Tylenol for pain. Once they pulled the chest drains out on Wednesday, you couldn’t keep me in bed and I got better in leaps and bounds. As far as pain, sternums have only skin and bone, while ribs have nerves in between them, plus they REALLY spread those far apart with retractors to get in through that small hole. I was told they were more painful incisions. As far as looks, I am a RN who works on a cardiology floor and I see patients all the time with open heart scars; they fade to almost nothing. While I am vain enough about my body to exercise with a Soloflex and ride miles on my bike to keep my weight to 113# (age 50), all I cared about my incision was whatever was the easiest way for my surgeon to get his job done and done well.

Mary says on August 30th, 2009 at 9:18 pm

Hi Vicki: I’m guessing you probably had your surgery already, but I’m curious as to which approach you chose and how it worked for you. I am a 47-year-old extremely active woman who had experienced 30+ years of what I was told were “ophthalmic migraines”. I would lose my vision for 30-60 minutes at a time with (rarely) expressive dysphasia; sometimes as often as 3-4 times in a week, but normally once or twice a month. When I had an episode that lasted 5 days, a thorough workup revealed a retinal infarction (TIA). Further workup revealed a large atrial septal defect with an atrial septal aneurysm.
Like you, I weighed my options as to the approach in which to repair these. I opted for the thoracotomy. As stated above, yes, it was quite painful; although I’ve never had a sternotomy and have no basis of comparison. I had no complications and the doctor gave me the OK at 6 weeks for activity as tolerated. I started working out slowly and within a month or so after that, was up to full speed.
Now, almost 2 years later, I am in perfect shape (in fact, completely dismissed by my cardiologist!). No one even believes I had open heart surgery. I have a small 1′ scar on my neck from bypass that is barely visible as well as one on my upper thigh and a 5-6″ scar under my right breast. I feel as if I never had surgery with the exception of (as with Tanya above) some nerve damage in my right breast resulting in both hypo and hypersensitivity. A small price to pay.
I’ve also never had a “migraine” again. Obvisouly they were never migraines. According to my doctor, they were clots (small TIAs) all along. I am so fortunate to be alive and am thankful every day for my wonderful doctors!

Good luck!

shari says on January 3rd, 2010 at 10:08 am

Would love to hear from someone! I am a 51yr. active female, who had minimal invasive mitral valve repair and a maze procedure, Dec. 7th. I have such pain where the incisions are and my right breast. What do to for it?

shari says on January 3rd, 2010 at 11:09 pm

Vicky, I also had a left mastectomy, almost 5 years ago. Would love to chat. Here is my

I heard going down the middle is very painful, and more time to recover. To be honest, tomorrow will be 4 weeks since my surgery. I have SOOOOO much pain. Going tomorrow to the cardiologist. Surgeon seems to think everything is a okay. The pain is awful. I am wondering if something is going on.

wendy says on January 4th, 2010 at 1:56 pm

Hi Shari,
I am a 58 year-old woman. I had a “minimally invasive” mitral valve repair Nov. 23. The repair was done through a mini-thoracotomy, about a five inch incision under my right breast. I also had about a three inch incision at the top of my right leg for the heart bypass machine.

Minimally invasive is certainly a misnomer. It is less invasive, but now I see that it has its own set of issues. The incisions were very painful the first week. That went away for me, but my right breast is numb, and my right leg, from the groin to the knee is somewhat numb, but also hypersensitive to the touch. The groin incision has a ton of scar tissue,and it swells and gets sore after I have been on it or walking.

My right chest is still tight and is its own percussion section, with all sorts of clicking and clacking of ribs! I have also had a lot of shooting pains through my breast and it does hurt to the touch, but I think that is because the nerves are starting to regenerate. Maybe that is what is happening to you.

I do think that I was more mobile quicker than if I had a sternotomy. But most people don’t understand that the surgery was just as brutal, that it was still open-heart surgery which included collapsing your lung, going on bypass machine. So you don’t get as much sympathy as if you had your chest cracked!!!!!

I hope this helps. I haven’t been able to compare notes with anyone who has had the thoracotomy.

CHRISTY says on January 5th, 2010 at 11:25 am


Lisa says on January 5th, 2010 at 7:18 pm

Christy, I too am a 36 year old recovering from mitral valve surgery. It does seem too young, but the damage is real. With bad valves the heart muscle can become enlarged and weaken, THIS CANNOT be repaired and can eventually lead to congestive heart failure, best to get the valve fixed before there is permanent damage. I am a nurse and have worked with many heart failure patients, I knew this was a greater issue to fear than surgery. I was absolutely terrified going in, it is a major surgery. My heart now is performing better than prior to the surgery and that is a comfort. I had to have a median sternotomy, and it has been painful, there are pain medications and rehab to aid us in our recovery. In addition, the healthier you are going in, the easier it is to recoop. I hated the anxiety prior to the surgery, and set up my surgery for as soon as I could so I did not prolong it. I am a year out now and not quite 100%, but I know my future is much more secure now.
I had no symptoms before my repair which made it very difficult to believe that I needed surgery, but my heart was enlarging, in the case of heart muscles, bigger is definitely NOT better. Best wishes

Cheryl Irvine says on January 5th, 2010 at 8:41 pm

Hi Everyone
Don’t know if this helps anyone above but I am a 60 year old female who underwent the full crack the chest open surgery Oct 1/09 to repair a mitral valve. The repair went well, I was in the hospital the average amount of time and have to admit I still suffer breast pain and shoulder blade pain. The pain is definitely much, much less than what it was originally but it is still there and I am told, will eventually subside altogether. I don’t take any drugs for pain and haven’t since my second week after surgery. My sternum has healed but now and then lets me know it had been under construction. I found the actual surgical pain only lasted the first few days and by the third day I was on Tylenol Extra Strength and the next week, nothing. Knowing my heart has been repaired is definitely worth the quality of life I am going to have. Would I do it again? In a heart beat! But, I pray I don’t have to!! Cheryl, Ontario

wendy says on January 5th, 2010 at 9:37 pm

Hi Christy, I had mitral valve surgery six weeks ago as I wrote above. Despite the strange array of after effects I am very glad and relieved that I have had the surgery.

Once I found out that I had a major leak, I wanted to get it over with as soon as possible. FInding the right doctor and facility was very stressful, and the anticipation of the surgery was worse than the actual surgery and recovery. Once I commited to a course of action, the process just took over.

The recovery process has been kind of like training for an athletic event. I have seen dramatic improvement in my energy and physical capacity from the first week I was home. I am now looking forward to starting cardiac rehab. and seeing just how fit I can now become.

Those of us who have had valve surgery needed to have it to be able to get on with our lives. Good luck.

CHRISTY says on January 6th, 2010 at 11:30 am


wendy says on February 28th, 2010 at 6:37 pm

A heartfelt hello to all of you, and the wonderful support and information you are providing for one another. My name is Wendy. I am a 54 year old, active kindergarten teacher who also loves yoga. I am scheduled for a mitral valve repair on 4/14/10. My doctor at Mercy Hospital in Sacramento, has also given me the choice of a thoracotomy or midline sternotomy. I would greatly appreciate the thoughts and tips from those of you who have gone before me, your words of wisdom, and any advise or tips for my family as well. Many thanks! Wendy

Wendy says on March 1st, 2010 at 3:23 pm

Hi Wendy, I am 58 years old and had mitral valve repair through a thoracotomy Nov. 23. I have written a few comments above in this blog already concerning my experience. I was happy with my choice of methods, but frustrated before and after because there is so much written about recovery from a sternotomy but little guidance concerning the thoracotomy. I would be glad to try to answer some of your questions. I don’t know whether we can exchange e-mails on here.

wendy says on March 2nd, 2010 at 11:43 pm

Hi Wendy,
Thank you so much for responding to my request for more information and insight on having a thoracotomy. It would be so helpful to be able to hear more from you. I haven’t been able to talk with anyone personally who has been through the experience, and because of the privacy laws my doctor hasn’t been able to connect me with anyone to talk to. I told his office that I would be happy to be a patient advocate after my surgery. The unknowns and uncertainties make facing the surgery so much more difficult. I am very grateful to Adam and all the participants of this blog who are building a circle of support and information for each other. It is a gift that keeps on giving and touching lives to those in need. I will write him and ask him how we might be able to connect more directly. Thank you again. Be well, Wendy

April says on March 21st, 2010 at 1:16 pm

I am a 55 year old female and almost 1 year post op from a minimally invasive mitral valve repair in Houston. “Minimally invasive” doesn’t mean “minimally painful,” although no one told me that beforehand. I can honestly say it was the most excruciatingly painful thing I have ever been through, and there is little or nothing written about this type of surgery on females. The first two weeks were the worst,but I rapidly improved after that. Having sufficient pain meds and someone to help out the first week home is very important. I had a couple of complications – had to have fluid drained from my chest a couple of weeks after surgery and I also developed a lymphocele at the groin incision which required another surgery. All in all, I am very pleased with the results and have no regrets about anything. I feel great and am able to exercise and do anything (and more) that I could do before the surgery. I had lingering breast and shoulder blade pain and recently received a couple of rounds of steroid injections which has helped.

Has anyone experienced strange muscle contractions under the right breast when the chest muscles are flexed? If so, has anyone tried to get it repaired?

Freddie says on May 10th, 2010 at 8:55 pm

Hi, My younger sister(49) needs a mitral valve repair in 2-3 months for severe prolapse and regurgitation, ruptured cords, pulmonary hypertension, enlarged heart. The head of UW Madison advised her to have a full sternum approach. Mayo says she is a good candidate for robotic. Northwestern head of cardiac surgery says full sternum.She is going to consult with the Univ. of Chicago also. We are very interested in the healing time and complications from the minimally invasive technique vs traditional approach.The UW surgeon was the one who mentioned the rib pain, muscle pain and possible right breast numbness. She wants to avoid the big scar but also has 4 teenagers and is otherwise athletic and in good health. Her lungs need to recover for a few months more from severe H1N1 and pneumonia last winter according to one of the surgeons. I would appreciate input, especially for small boned females having had both techniques. Thank you.

Melisa says on May 14th, 2010 at 11:38 pm

I am a 30 year old female in need of an aortic valve replacement. I am still trying to decide between a thoracotomy or a full sternotomy. Worried about tubes, pain, etc. Not much concerned about scars. The anxiety is killing me…my surgery is still a month away. I just want to make the right decision. I am having the surgery in Utah. Any suggestions or comments from anyone is appreciated! Thanks!

Kellie says on May 29th, 2010 at 11:59 am

Hi Melisa. At 40 I thought I was young to need a valve replacement. Like you, I need to decide which type of sugery I want. My surgeon says the only difference is the size of the incisions…. I also need to choose which type of valve I want (porcine or mechanical). I’m curious to know which you plan on choosing. I was leaning one way but am giving more consideration to the other lately. My surgery is scheduled for mid-July.

Doug says on June 26th, 2010 at 6:02 pm

I am a 48-year old male in good health who is scheduled for mitral valve repair (prolapse and regurg) in August. Regarding minimally invasive partial sternotomy v. thoracotomy, Dr. Keith Horvath of NIH and John’s Hopkins said that the thoracotomy was more painful. More interesting, he said that, if you are athletic you might consider sternotomy because the sternum can actually become stronger after surgery because it is held together by steel wires rather than “just” bone. He added that thoracotomy can sometime leave lingering or chronic little pains because it requires cutting through muscle and connective tissue rather than skin and bone. There are many other considerations, of course, but those who lift weights or swim should think about this.

Another interesting tidbit he mentioned: connecting the cardio-pulmonary bypass machine through the femoral artery (as is often the case in minimally invasive techniques) has, according to a recent as-of-yet unpublished study at NIH (?), a slightly greater chance of causing stroke. A possible reason is that the blood flows BACKWARDS through the femoral artery, possibly dislodging stuff that shouldn’t be. Going through the aorta, on the other hand, goes with the flow, so to speak. Further, the femoral artery is small, and more difficult to work with than the aorta. . . . Has anyone else heard anything like this? I don’t like the idea of blood flowing backwards in my arteries. (Maybe I misunderstood.) (Of course, the chance of these side effects is very low.)

Glenda says on August 2nd, 2010 at 3:01 pm

I’m a 69 year old female who is quite active. Don’t run, climb mts. etc, but work outside in my yard doing whatever needs doing.moving heavy pots, climbing ladders – painting , digging holes , hauling stepping stones etc. have had mitral valve prolapse for years, and have to stop and rest a lot. Doctor says I need replacement surgery but even tho the valve is getting worse, my heart is still too strong for surgery to be done now. Don’t understand why my heart needs to get so weak first. He said the danger of dying from the defective valve has to outweigh the possibility of dying during surgery. I currently take no medicines for anything beyond asprin or ibupropen for arthritis or something for bouts of sinus. Doctor said I will have to have a metal valve and take blood thinner forever. I wonder how many more drugs will I end up having to take before it is over. I hate to take medicine. The thought of pain doesn’t upset me nearly as much as being down where I can’t look out for my self for who knows how long.

Doug says on August 26th, 2010 at 9:24 am

FYI, I had my surgery, and everything went as well as could be expected. Oddly, I didn’t have much pain in my chest afterward, except when coughing. Even then, it wasn’t terrible. The painkilling narcotics did give me hallucinations, though.

Mary Ann Marko says on October 16th, 2010 at 11:28 pm

At age 68 I had robotic repair of the mitral valve in May of this year. Ten days later, I suffered a rare complication, herniation of the lung into the robotic incision after a severe coughing spell. I underwent surgery to repair this. The recovery was extremely painful following both surgeries, worse after the second. At five months post op, my right breast is still completely numb and I expect it will remain so. By all indications, my heart is healthy and I am taking no heart or pain meds.All in all I am grateful to have my life back.

SUSAN LLOYD says on March 2nd, 2011 at 9:22 am

A year ago at the age of 54 I was diagnosed as having a large Atrial septal defect ( 29 mm) which I would have been born with .
In May 2010 I underwent keyhole surgery to try to repair the hole with an amplatzer device – this failed due to the position and size of the hole.

My Dad died shortly after this and so I had to deal with the grief before trying to move on. I have seen 2 surgeons recently . One is based in my home city in Wales and says he can use either a sub mammary ( is the same as thoracotomy> ) approach or a full sternotomy . He would not show preference – just said the sub mammary takes longer and is more taxing for the surgeon , but that time on by-pass the same . Also that there is a risk of ongoing pain afterwards .
The second surgeon is based in London , and definately favours the sternotomy . I was hoping he would attempt a lower sternotomy ( some of you have mentioned 4 inch incisions ?) but he laughed and said with women he tried to make the scar slightly lower but that was the best he could do . This surgeon has a very good reputation , but seems more traditional .

I am scared and confused . Can anyone help me ? Most of you seem to be from America sharing your information- well done . I can’t find discussion groups like this in UK .

Laura says on September 30th, 2012 at 6:20 pm

I am in a unique position in that I had both a thoracotomy and a sternotomy on the same day. The surgeon repaired my mitral valve through the thorocotomy as planned but as they took me off the heart/lung machine, I had a cardiac “incident”. Fortunately, the surgeon realized what was wrong (the artery in my heart had kinked, probably because a stitch was placed too close to the artery) and fortunately I was still in the OR, intubated, anesthitized, etc. They performed an emergency by pass and saved my life with no major long term ill effects. The big down side is that I have 4 long incisions on my left leg running knee to ankle. Because the by pass was a surprise, no veins had been identified and the surgeon had to “search” to find suitable grafts.

My decision to have the repair (which was successful by the way) done by a thoracotomy was not influenced by any concerns for scars – which is a good thing because I look like I was mauled by a wild animal. As I write this, I am 3 days shy of the three month anniversary.

Now to answer your question, the sternotomy incision has been the LEAST painful of all my incisions. The thoracotomy makes the sternotomy seem like a walk in the park. However, I have been extremely fortunate and have not had any complications from the sternotomy which I understand are more common than with the thoracotomy. If I had suffered any infections or if the bones had not knit together properly, it would be a different story.

I’m probably going into more detail than you want but here goes.
The rib pain was my first “break through” pain in the hospital. I would feel the rib and know it was time for more meds. They do a remarkable job of keeping you pain free in the hospital.

The incisions in my leg bothered me the most at first. This is not something most mitral valve patients have to deal with – that was thanks to the by pass from the initial kinked artery complication. Anyway, I had to wear compression stockings and taking them on and off was a nightmare for the first week home. Pain meds get cut at home by the way. I don’t remember any pain from the sternotomy for the first 2 – 3 weeks at home but then I was probably more than distracted by my sore, swelling ankle and my swollen right breast and sore ribs (all thoracotomy related). I placed a flexible “cold pack” under my right arm and wrapped it around my right breast trying to reduce the swelling. It felt good although I don’t know how effective it really was.

I was later told by my doctor that the more fit and muscular you are, the more painful the thoracotomy because there is more muscle that gets cut during surgery. I am very fit and exercised religously before and after the surgery.

In the end, I think the decision is one to make with your surgeon. My sternotomy scar is surprisingly short and does not extend over my cleavage. It does not show over my sports bra. There was a period of time beginning about week 4 lasting until maybe week 10 when my sternomoty would hurt in the morning when I would move from laying down to standing. I literally would feel like I had been kicked by a mule for the first couple of minutes after rising. Then it would go away. That’s much better now, although my sternum is still a little tender.

I still have swelling under my right arm and in my breast. That whole quadrant is numb. Don’t ask how something can hurt and be numb at the same time but it can. It’s the loss of sensation that makes me angry. No one told me that it might be a side effect. I asked the surgeon about it. My first thought was he cut through a nerve when he did the sternotomy but he said no, it was from the incision under my right breast. He assured me it would go away but it’s been almost 3 months and I’m still numb. The rib pain is about gone. Once in a while I reach or stretch far and I become aware of it but nothing terrible.

I have graduated from cardiac rehab about a week ago and have returned to my gym. I am amazed at how much I can do. I’m not back 100% but I’m getting there.

Even with the added surgery, I feel very lucky. The valve repair was successful. Most importantly, my heart arrythmia (which was life threatening) has resolved and I do not need a pace maker. My recovery has been quick. I hope my story helps.

Allyson Mahan Anderson says on April 14th, 2016 at 9:42 am

I am in the same quandary regarding sternotomy vs Thorocotomy Any insight would be ever so helpful.. I am 68 thin and scared to death.

mvpatient says on June 16th, 2016 at 2:23 pm

Jo, I’m not sure if you’ll be notified of this reply or if your account is still active here as your post here was 7 years ago, but just curious, did Dr. Bakhos actually perform your surgery or was he the lead of a surgical team who performed the surgery under his direction? Thanks.

willi k says on April 11th, 2017 at 5:57 pm

Hi wendy this is ivy. I will have surgery go remove large tumor from my chest. Can you or anyone can help me to answer which is better and faster for recovery is it side thoracotomy or sternotomy? Thanks

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