Pumphead, or Postperfusion Syndrome to give its scientific name, may or may not have been something you have heard of let alone experienced. Some of you may be thinking it sounds like part of a car! However, for many, the post-op brain fog is very real. 

Doctors have been discussing the strange effect for years now with many tests having been carried out as to why this occurs in some people following bypass surgery.

So what is Pumphead?

Pumphead; is that a thing? (Postperfusion syndrome)

Pumphead came about after patients started to advise of some side effects following surgery. The side effects they had complained about were things like:

  • Brain fog
  • Confusion
  • Headaches 
  • Dizziness
  • Double vision

All of the above sounds like symptoms you may think were viable following an operation of any kind. You have undergone anesthesia and quite a traumatic experience with an operation so no wonder you have these symptoms.

However, the doctors realised the symptoms were occurring mainly in patients who had undergone bypass surgery.

Why does it occur mainly in bypass surgery patients?

The answer to this has been debated quite a bit. In reality, the research that has been carried out on this has been inconclusive.

One of the main reasons doctors first believed Pumphead occurred in bypass patients was due to the use of a Perfusion Machine during the procedure. The Perfusion Machine is used to “pump” blood and oxygen around the body while your heart is being operated on. This is where Pumphead gained its name.

The scientists first thought that the use of the machine caused little blood clots to form on the brain causing some damage. This led to patients having a decrease in cognitive ability.

However, there have been tests done more recently on bypass patients without the use of a Perfusion Machine and they found that some patients were still having Pumphead symptoms following their procedure.

This has now led scientists to believe that any handling of the heart and aorta in this way could cause these blood clots to form and travel to the brain.

Other theories suggested are drops in blood pressure, high body temperatures when warming after surgery, and prolonged reduction of oxygen levels all of which can occur during heart surgery.

The debate goes on.

I am curious if this has to do with the unconscious mind. Does the impact of being on a bypass machine cause trauma in the mind. The heart no longer pumping via the nervous system but via a mechanical device. Does it trigger the flight or fight response? Watch this space, I may not have the answers but maybe more questions. I will be looking into this and discussing in the future.

Sallie Crawley

How do I know if I have Pumphead?

If this is sounding familiar to you then read on. 

There can be many symptoms of Pumphead. Maybe you have felt off balance recently? Stumbled over when nothing was there to fall over? Perhaps you have noticed a decrease in your ability to problem solve? You may just generally be feeling confused or have “brain fog”. There are other symptoms like depression, anxiety, or a change in your personality.

The symptoms may be there pretty soon after your surgery. Again, these symptoms may occur in many post-op patients due to anesthetic, etc, however, if they worsen or carry on for long periods of time you must speak to your doctor. The sooner the better!

A lot of patients have experienced this syndrome and it can be treated! Don’t be shy about speaking up. If doubt, check it out and ask your primary doctor for a referral to a neurologist.

Pumphead; is that a thing? (Postperfusion syndrome)
Pumphead; is that a thing? (Postperfusion syndrome)

How is Pumphead treated?

The good news is that cognitive abilities can be improved with talking therapies, rehabilitation, and time. Going to your doctor to discuss your symptoms and the best form of treatment is your first port of call.

You can also help yourself at home. Doing puzzles, reading, and playing musical instruments log with memory training apps on the computer or your smartphone can help. And playing games with your family and friends is a great way to improve your cognitive ability too.

Sharing how you feel and what’s going on for you with your nearest and dearest helps as they are your go-to for support and when things feel frustrating they will help you to feel better.  Being social helps make life satisfying and preserves mental function.

Talking about things helps your mental health as well as your cognitive abilities. Whether this is with family and friends or in the form of a Hearties Support Group, like mine. What could be better than helping each other get through one of the toughest times of your life?

I am sure you’ve heard these before but there is even more reason to pay attention to cardiac lifestyle changes if you are experiencing symptoms of Pumphead. Omega-3 fatty acids are good for the heart and show benefits for the brain along with a diet rich in vegetables and fruit. Exercise too has known benefits for heart recovery and it can also help slow cognitive decline.

The best treatment for Pumphead? Time.

Pumphead; is that a thing? (Postperfusion syndrome)

Give yourself time to heal, both physically and mentally. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. You have been through a lot but you will get there.

Many people who have had some degree of cognitive impairment after bypass surgery report that they recover completely, returning to their previous mental function within 3—12 months.

From survivor to thriver!