A heart transplant is an operation to replace a damaged or failing heart with a healthy heart from a donor who has recently died.

It may be recommended when a person's life is at risk because their heart no longer works effectively.

This page covers:

Why they're carried out

What happens

Recovery

Risks

Outlook

Why heart transplants are carried out

A heart transplant may be considered if you have severe heart failure and medical treatments aren't helping.

Conditions that may eventually require a heart transplant include:

  • coronary heart disease – a build-up of fatty substances in the arteries supplying the heart, which block or interrupt blood flow to the heart
  • cardiomyopathy – where the walls of the heart have become stretched, thickened or stiff
  • congenital heart disease – birth defects that affect the normal workings of the heart

If your doctor thinks you might benefit from a heart transplant, you'll need to have an in-depth assessment to check whether you're healthy enough to have one before being placed on a waiting list.

Read more about who can have a heart transplant and being on the heart transplant waiting list.

What happens during a heart transplant

A heart transplant needs to be carried out as soon as possible after a donor heart becomes available.

The procedure is performed under general anaesthetic (where you're asleep).

While it's carried out, a heart-lung bypass machine will be used to keep your blood circulating with oxygen-rich blood.

A cut is made in the middle of the chest. Your own heart is then removed, and the donor heart is connected to the main arteries and veins. The new heart should then begin beating normally.

Read more about how a heart transplant is performed.

Recovering from a heart transplant

You'll usually need to stay in hospital for around two or three weeks after a heart transplant. Most people are able to start returning to many of their normal activities within a few months.

Your transplant team can give you advice about how long you may need to avoid certain activities during your recovery.

You'll need to have regular check-ups with your transplant team after the transplant.

You'll also need to take medications called immunosuppressants for the rest of your life. Without these medicines, your body may recognise your new heart as foreign and attack it (known as rejection).

Read more about recovering from a heart transplant.

Risks of a heart transplant

A heart transplant is a complex and risky procedure.

Possible complications include:

  • the immune system recognising the transplanted heart as foreign and attacking it (rejection)
  • the donated heart fails to work properly (graft failure)
  • narrowing of the arteries supplying the heart (cardiac allograft vasculopathy)
  • side effects from the immunosuppressant medication, such as an increased vulnerability to infections, weight gain and kidney problems

Many of these problems are treatable, although sometimes another heart transplant may need to be carried out if possible.

Read more about the risks associated with a heart transplant.

Outlook for heart transplants

Most people can eventually return to their normal activities after a heart transplant and experience a significant improvement in their symptoms for many years.

However, it's a major operation and some of the complications can be life threatening.

Overall:

  • 80-90 in every 100 people will live at least a year
  • 70-75 in every 100 people will live at least five years
  • 50 in every 100 people will live at least 10 years

Some people have survived for more than 25 years after a heart transplant.

NHS Organ Donor Register

If you're interested in donating your organs after you die, you can join the NHS Organ Donor Register.

Joining the NHS Organ Donor Register is quick and simple, and will only take a few minutes of your time. You can remove yourself from the register at any time, and you can specify what you're willing to donate.

Page last reviewed: 25/05/2016

Next review due: 25/05/2018