Whether to operate on patients with severe aortic regurgitation (AR) before or after symptoms appear has been a point of controversy among cardiothoracic surgeons, but a recent study has found that patients who have early surgery may not fare any better for up to 10 years than those who opt for a more conservative “watchful waiting” course of care.
Investigators from Belgium reported results from an analysis of 160 patients in the November issue of the Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery (2015;150:1100-08). “In asymptomatic severe AR, delaying surgery until the onset of class I/IIa operative triggers is safe, supporting current guidelines,” said Dr. Christophe de Meester and colleagues at the Catholic University of Louvain and St. Luc University Clinic in Brussels.
The goal of the study was to evaluate long-term outcomes and incidence of cardiac complications in patients with severe AR who did not have any signs and symptoms that called for surgery, and who either had surgery early on or entered conservative management and eventually had an operation when signs and symptoms did appear.
The study found that close follow-up and monitoring of patients with severe AR was a cornerstone of successful conservative management. “We found that survival was similar between the two groups,” Dr. De Meester and coauthors said. “Better survival was nonetheless observed in conservatively managed patients with regular as opposed to no or a looser follow-up.”
The most recent European Society of Cardiology (ESC) guidelines and American Heart Association/American College of Cardiology guidelines state that symptomatic severe AR is a class I indication for surgery regardless of left ventricular (LV) systolic function.
However, Dr. De Meester and colleagues said, the timing of that surgery is not so clear-cut. Earlier studies have shown that surgery could be delayed for patients with minimal symptoms, but more recent evidence has suggested the opposite, according to the study. Two factors favor surgery before symptoms arise – poor aortic valve repair outcomes in patients with symptoms of heart failure and long-standing severe AR, which eventually leads to LV dysfunction.
Yet, the latest ESC guidelines have been “reluctant” to make a strong case for early surgery before symptoms of LV dysfunction appear, and the AHA/ACC guidelines call for surgery only when symptoms of LV dysfunction or LV dilatation develop, Dr. de Meester and his coauthors said.
In the past, the risks of aortic valve replacement were too high to consider early surgery, the study authors said. “However, with the advent of aortic valve repair, operative mortality and long-term outcomes have improved to such an extent that early surgery has become a plausible option for patients.”
But the risk of these patients developing symptoms for surgery was nonetheless low over 10 years, the study found: 7.4% for developing severe LV dilatation; 0.6% for becoming symptomatic; and 0.9% for developing LV dysfunction. Overall, the rate of adverse events in the study population was 9.9% at 10 years.
In the study, 69 patients were initially managed conservatively, 49 of whom were in the watchful waiting group that visited a cardiologist at least annually and another 20 considered an “irregular follow-up subgroup.” Among the watchful waiting group, 31 developed symptoms for surgery (only two declined surgery). Watchful waiting patients had five- and 10-year survival of 100% and 95%, respectively, compared with 90% and 79% among those who had irregular follow-up.
Overall, the conservatively managed group had outcomes better than or equal to the early surgery group. Ten-year cardiovascular survival was 96% in both groups, whereas event-free survival was 92% at 10 years in the conservatively managed group vs. 81% in the early surgery group.
The study was supported by the Belgium National Fund for Scientific Research. The authors had no conflicts to disclose.