Your chest houses many vital organs and tissues, including your heart, lungs, and esophagus. A problem with one or more of these structures can affect your whole body, and usually requires medical intervention. Cardiothoracic surgeons specialize in treating illnesses or injuries affecting the organs and tissues in the chest. Here's all you need to know about these surgical specialists.

What Is a Cardiothoracic Surgeon?

A cardiothoracic surgeon operates on the organs and tissues in your chest. The surgeon may also be involved in the non-surgical treatment and management of many different conditions affecting this part of your body.

Your primary care doctor may refer you to a cardiothoracic surgeon when they cannot provide you with a diagnosis and want to seek the opinion of a surgeon, or when they think you may benefit from the treatment a specialist can provide.

Reasons to See a Cardiothoracic Surgeon

Your doctor will refer you to a cardiothoracic surgeon when your doctor suspects you need surgery. Common conditions requiring referral to a cardiothoracic surgeon include:

  • Coronary artery disease, or blockages in the arteries of your heart
  • Heart valve stenosis, or narrowing of your heart valves
  • Heart valve regurgitation, or leaking heart valves
  • Abnormal enlargement or aneurysms of the arteries in your chest
  • Heart failure
  • Atrial fibrillation, or an abnormal heart rhythm
  • Lung cancer
  • Chest wall deformities, such as a sunken chest
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Septal defects, or holes in your heart
  • Pulmonary fibrosis, or scarring of your lungs
  • Progressive lung diseases, such as emphysema

What Does a Cardiothoracic Surgeon Do?

A cardiothoracic surgeon can perform various types of surgery, including:

  • Adult cardiac surgery: This includes coronary artery bypass surgery to restore blood flow to the heart following a blockage, heart valve surgery to repair or replace diseased or damaged heart valves, and aortic aneurysm surgery to repair the large artery carrying blood out of the heart (aorta).
  • General thoracic surgery: This includes pectus surgery to correct a sunken chest, pneumonectomy to remove an entire lung, and wedge resection to remove a segment of a lung.
  • Congenital cardiac surgery: This includes transposition of the great arteries to restore the heart's normal anatomy, and septal defect surgery to remove a hole between the heart's chambers.
  • Heart and/or lung transplant surgery: This includes single lung transplants, double lung transplants, and heart and lung transplants.

Most cardiothoracic surgeons specialize in one type of surgery, although some perform a combination of several types. As well as performing surgery, cardiothoracic surgeons may prescribe medications or perform non-surgical procedures that might help to treat your problem.

Possible Subspecialties

Cardiothoracic surgeons train in both adult cardiac surgery and general thoracic surgery. Some surgeons choose to undergo additional training to earn subspecialty certification in congenital heart surgery. This education allows them to treat babies and children with congenital heart defects or heart problems existing at or before birth.

How Is a Cardiothoracic Surgeon Certified?

Cardiothoracic surgeons spend at least ten years in training. Four of these years are spent in medical school receiving general medical education. After receiving their medical degree, they must spend four to five years in a general surgery residency and another two years in a cardiothoracic surgery residency. Cardiothoracic surgeons require board certification, obtained by passing specialized exams.

Referral and Research

If you suspect you have a problem with your heart, lungs or another structure in your chest, consult your primary care doctor. He or she may use tests or procedures to investigate your problem or refer you to another specialist for further examination. The type of specialist you see will depend on the nature of your problem. For example, if you have a problem with your heart, your primary care doctor may refer you to a heart doctor or cardiologist, or if you have a problem with your lungs, your doctor may refer you to a lung specialist or pulmonologist.

Your medical specialist may diagnose and treat your problem, or if necessary, refer you to a cardiothoracic surgeon. If your medical specialist does not recommend a particular surgeon, you will need to do research and find the right cardiothoracic surgeon for you. One of the best ways to start your search for one is to use the American College of Surgeons' Find a Surgeon tool to find qualified surgeons near you. You can also use doctor review websites, such as CareDash, to find surgeons and browse ratings, reviews and performance histories.

Once you have made a list of cardiothoracic surgeons, visit the American Board of Medical Specialties' Certification Matters website and search the directory to determine whether your shortlisted surgeons are board certified. You should also contact your state's medical board to check whether the surgeons are licensed and whether they have any history of complaints or disciplinary actions against them.

Questions to Ask Your Cardiothoracic Surgeon

If your doctor has referred you to a cardiothoracic surgeon, this does not mean that you will definitely need surgery. Only the surgeon can make this decision, after assessing you and weighing up your treatment options.

If you do need surgery, it is important to be informed about the recommended procedure. Asking questions can help you learn more about the surgery and determine whether it is right for you. Questions could include:

  • What type of surgery do I require, and why do I need it?
  • What does the surgery involve, and how long will it take?
  • What are the benefits and risks of surgery?
  • What are my alternatives?
  • What will happen if I don't have surgery?
  • Will you perform the surgery, and what experience do you have?
  • What can I expect during recovery?
  • How will I know if the operation is a success?
  • Who do I contact if I have any questions or concerns following this appointment?

Your cardiothoracic surgeon should welcome your questions and answer them clearly, using simple, jargon-free language. If the surgeon makes you feel uncomfortable, or you are unhappy with the recommended treatment, don't be afraid to seek a second opinion. 

Check out the Caredash database for help finding a doctor.