What's so minimal about "minimally invasive" coronary bypass surgery?

A coronary bypass reroutes the clogged artery with an alternate vein mined from the leg or chest. See more pictures of the heart.
3D4Medical.com/Getty Images

Of course you love french fries; everyone does. Same with buttery croissants, hot fudge sundaes and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Raw broccoli and cauliflower? Not so much. Getting up at the crack of dawn for an early morning run? Pass.

Unfortunately, eating greasy, fatty foods and sweets and refusing to exercise leads to poor health, clogged arteries and, most likely, heart trouble. The foods most people desire just aren't good for the ticker. If they were, then there wouldn't be a need for nearly half a million coronary bypass surgeries each year -- and that's just in the United States alone [source: American Heart Association].

Years of high fat and bad cholesterol leads to a buildup of plaque in the arteries that carry blood to and from your heart and the rest of your body. If your arteries are the major blood expressways in your body, then plaque is the seven-car pileup that's keeping your blood from getting to work. Only instead of just being scolded by your boss for being late, you're ordering up a heart attack. Once the plaque builds to a certain level, it will form a blood clot, completely blocking the artery all together.

Luckily for you, there's a 40-year-old procedure that can reroute the blood supply that normally flows into and out of the heart through the arteries. It's called coronary bypass surgery. In the heart, there's one main artery called the aorta. It's the largest one in the body and runs from the left ventricle of the heart, up and over the back of your ticker and then back down through your chest and abdomen. It then divides into two arteries called the common iliac arteries that go to your legs.

In ­a coronary bypass, the surgeon does a little roadwork thanks to a borrowed vein from your leg or chest. Once the vein is removed, it's reattached, or grafted -- one end to the aorta and the other end to the blocked artery, below the traffic accident. Like a traffic cop blowing his whistle, the blood is now rerouted and the clogged artery is bypassed. This is necessary when the artery can't be unclogged through a procedure called angioplasty.

Standard coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG) surgery requires that the heart be stopped during the procedure and the chest opened. New techniques in minimally invasive surgery make it possible to perform the same procedure without doing either. But how minimal is "minimally invasive"?