What is a cardiothoracic surgeon?
A cardiothoracic surgeon is a doctor who performs surgery on the organs in your chest, such as your heart, lungs and esophagus. Your heart and lungs are some of your body’s most vital organs, providing blood and oxygen to your whole body.
After medical school, cardiothoracic surgeons spend six to eight years of training in surgery. This gives them a combination of general and cardiothoracic surgical training. After that, some spend even more time learning about a specific area of cardiothoracic surgery, such as heart issues babies have when they’re born.
What does a cardiothoracic surgeon do?
A cardiothoracic surgeon treats people with diseases or injuries in their chest. They diagnose them and discuss treatment options, do the surgery and follow up with people after they’ve had surgery.
Cardiothoracic surgeons can treat some of the most well-known organs in your body and some parts of the body you haven’t heard about.
They can treat these areas of your body:
- Heart and the pericardium around it.
- Coronary arteries.
- Chest wall.
- Mediastinum (area between your lungs).
- Lungs and the pleura (linings) that surround them.
Types of cardiothoracic surgeons
- Cardiac surgeon.
- Congenital heart surgeon.
- Cardiovascular surgeon.
- General thoracic surgeon.
- Transplant surgeon.
What diseases does a cardiothoracic surgeon treat?
A cardiothoracic surgeon can treat a variety of issues in your chest, such as:
- Coronary artery disease and other heart diseases.
- Atrial fibrillation.
- Issues with your aorta like aneurysms.
- Heart transplant.
- Lung transplant.
- Lung disease, such as cancer.
- Esophageal disease, such as cancer.
- Heart failure.
- Problems with swallowing.
- Chest injury from an accident.
- Congenital (since birth) heart defects that affect how your heart functions.
- Hiatal hernias.
- Chest wall issues that involve muscle and bone.
- Aneurysms in chest arteries.
- Heart valves that aren’t working right.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
What is the difference between a cardiac surgeon and a cardiothoracic surgeon?
A cardiac surgeon specializes in surgery on your heart and the major blood vessels that carry blood to and from your heart. A cardiothoracic surgeon operates on anything in your chest: your heart, lungs, esophagus and trachea.
What kind of tests does a cardiothoracic surgeon do?
Your cardiothoracic surgeon will order tests to diagnose your condition. Depending on which symptoms you have, your tests may include:
- Chest X-ray.
- CT (computed tomography) scan.
- MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).
- Electrocardiogram (EKG).
- Cardiac catheterization.
- Multigated acquisition (MUGA) scan.
- Exercise stress test.
- Holter monitor.
- Pulmonary function test.
- Pulse oximetry (oxygen level).
- Upper endoscopy.
- Esophageal manometry.
When to see a cardiothoracic surgeon
Most of the time, another healthcare provider will refer you to a cardiothoracic surgeon. In some cases, it’s your primary care provider. In other cases, a specialist like a pulmonologist might refer you. This can happen when medicine or procedures are no longer enough to treat your condition and you need surgery. Also, you may seek out a second opinion from a second cardiothoracic surgeon.
What to expect at a cardiothoracic surgeon appointment
Your cardiothoracic surgeon will do a physical exam and talk with you about your symptoms. Your family history is important, especially for heart conditions. Some heart issues run in families. Be prepared to talk about who in your family has had heart issues, as well as what type.
Your surgeon will want to review any test results you have. If the tests were done a while ago, they may want you to repeat them. Also, they’ll need to know which medicines you’re taking.
After your cardiothoracic surgeon examines you and reviews your information, they may prescribe medicine for you. Also, they may tell you they need current test results before deciding what to do next. If they have all the information they need to understand your situation, they might talk with you about treatment options.
Do I need a referral to see a cardiothoracic surgeon?
Check with your insurance plan to find out if you need a referral. You’ll most likely get one from the healthcare provider who diagnoses your problem and can’t fix it with medicine or a minor procedure. Providers who might refer you to a cardiothoracic surgeon include your:
- Cardiologist who cares for your heart.
- Pulmonologist who cares for your lungs.
- Primary care provider who treats minor health issues.
- Gastroenterologist who helps you with digestive issues.
What does a cardiothoracic surgeon specialize in?
Cardiothoracic surgeons can specialize in these types of surgery:
- Heart and lung transplant.
- Heart problems people have when they’re born (congenital).
Where do cardiothoracic surgeons work?
Cardiothoracic surgeons work in hospitals and in private practice. Some work in research or teach medical students.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Cardiothoracic surgeons operate on some of the most vital organs in your body. The surgeries they do are often complex. Be sure to ask your surgeon questions about anything you don’t understand about your surgery. They’ll want you to be clear on why you need a certain surgery and how it can help you with your medical problem. After your surgery, keep taking all medicines your cardiothoracic surgeon (and other providers) prescribed for you. Follow the instructions you receive for caring for yourself or your loved one after surgery. Appointments after surgery are important, too. They help your cardiothoracic surgeon see how well you’re healing.
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