Aortofemoral bypass

What is an aortofemoral bypass?

An aortofemoral bypass for your aortoiliac arterial disease, or peripheral arterial disease (PAD), involves opening your abdomen (tummy) and your groins to bypass your diseased arteries with an artificial piece of artery (surgical graft).

This is a major procedure. It is usually only considered if you are otherwise healthy and you cannot have an angioplasty (balloon stretch / stent).

All patients go to ‘intensive care’ after open aortic surgery. There is therefore a risk that the operation may be cancelled on the day due to a lack of an ICU bed.

The surgery is under general anaesthetic (asleep on a ventilator). The aorta is approached through an incision on your abdomen – this may be ‘up and down’ or ‘across’. You will also have an incision in one or both groins (to access the femoral arteries).

Your specialist team will assess you, and your arteries on CT, to decide the most appropriate incision to use in you.

The procedure

  1. The small intestine is moved out of the way, either across into the right-hand side of the abdomen or up out of the abdomen into a bag.
  2. The aorta is exposed, usually up to the arteries to your kidneys, and down to where it divides to supply your legs.
  3. Incisions are made in one or both groins to access your femoral arteries.
  4. A drug called Heparin is given to reduce risk of blood clots.
  5. Clamps are applied to the aorta and the graft is sewn on.
  6. The graft limbs are tunnelled to the groin and sewn to the femoral arteries.

More information on preparing for your surgery, your admission to hospital and recovery are explained in the booklet ‘Coming in for your aortic surgery’.

Possible early complications

Undergoing open surgery places a greater stress on your body than having an aortic stent graft. 1 in 3 patients has an early complication:

  • Chest infection or breathing problem (20%) – the risk is higher if you smoke.
  • Kidney problem (12.5%) – people rarely need to go onto temporary or permanent dialysis.
  • Heart problem (9.1%)
  • Return to theatre (8.8%) e.g. for a bypass, angioplasty, groin operation or minor foot surgery.
  • Readmission to hospital (8.8%)
  • Reduced blood supply to legs (2.9%) – we usually need to perform emergency surgery, which itself could lead to amputation (1% risk).
  • Death (2.7%)
  • Problem with bleeding (low risk)
  • Bowel injury (low risk) – the risk is greater if you have had previous abdominal surgery or an episode of peritonitis (burst bowel or ulcer).
  • Reduced blood supply to the colon (very low risk) – this leads to inflammation in the bowel (ischaemic colitis) which can cause the bowel to burst. The symptoms can be mild, like diarrhoea, but more severe problems could require bowel surgery and a colostomy (stoma).
  • Abdominal adhesions can cause bowel problems
  • Clots in the legs or lungs – as with any major surgery there is a risk of Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) or Pulmonary Embolus (PE). You may require a blood transfusion.
  • You will experience some pain. Your anaesthetist will talk to you before your operation about how this will be managed (i.e. epidural catheter or patient controlled anaesthesia – PCA).
  • Complications of anaesthesia – your anaesthetist will talk to you about these in the pre-operative assessment clinic and on the day of your surgery.

The incisions in the groin may cause problems:

  • Bleeding from or blockage of the artery in the groin
  • Burning pain in the thighs due to bruising of nerves
  • Wound infection, fluid discharge or ‘lumpiness’

Potential later problems (from 30 days)

  • For men, reduced sexual function due to damage to pelvic nerves. (Men with PAD may already have experienced impotence.)
  • Abdominal wall hernia – this is due to a surgical scar being weaker than normal tissues.
  • The bowel can block due to abdominal adhesions.
  • Graft limbs can block unexpectedly, causing one or both legs to lose the blood supply – this then requires emergency surgery to avoid risk of amputation.
  • False aneurysm – weakening of the stitch line results in a new aneurysm which then requires surgery.
  • Aortoenteric fistula – a rare complication where the graft erodes into the bowel. This can cause life threatening bleeding or infection.
  • Aortic graft infection (0.5%)
    • It is possible for vascular grafts to pick up bugs from the skin at the time of the operation or for bugs to stick to the fabric graft when you have an infection in the blood stream at some later time (e.g. a chest infection).
    • These bugs slowly multiply over time and can weaken the aorta or cause a collection of fluid around the graft.
    • This infection can be difficult to diagnose; symptoms can range from feeling tired with flu-like symptoms to being very unwell with bleeding.
    • Good dental care may reduce the risk of infection.
    • For infection, we rarely need to operate again as we can only 100% treat infection by removing the aortic graft.

It is not usually necessary to come back for check-ups but some people will need a second operation either to the stent graft or itself or to other leg arteries.

More information

NHS Choices

The Circulation Foundation

Your specialists

Vascular Society of Great Britain & Ireland

If you or the individual you are caring for need support reading this leaflet please ask a member of staff for advice.

How to contact us:

Brunel building
Southmead Hospital
BS10 5NB

Vascular clinical nurse specialists: 0117 414 5302/3/4

AAA screening programme: 0117 414 8610

Patient pathway coordinators: 0117 414 0798

© North Bristol NHS Trust. This edition published August 2020. Review due August 2022. NBT003286

Aortofemoral bypass