BACKGROUND Thrombolytic therapy is a promising alternative to valve replacement in the management of prosthetic valve thrombosis. We sought to determine the short- and long-term results of treating thrombosed St. Jude heart valves with thrombolytic therapy as the primary treatment modality. METHODS AND RESULTS Between March 1978 and December 1991, 988 patients underwent implantation of St. Jude prosthetic valves at our medical center, and all patients with thrombosed valves were identified prospectively. During this period, 17 patients (13 women; mean age, 66.8 +/- 19.0 years) developed prosthetic valve thrombosis (11 aortic, six mitral). In six patients, Coumadin was stopped in preparation for elective surgery. The clinical presentation was congestive heart failure in 13, syncope and fatigue in two, and a cerebrovascular accident in one; one patient was asymptomatic. The average duration of symptoms was 11.7 +/- 12.0 days (range, 1-45 days). Anticoagulation was subtherapeutic in all but one patient at the time of presentation. Cinefluoroscopy was the primary method used for diagnosis and was also used to follow the response to therapy. Twelve patients were treated medically (10 with thrombolytic therapy and two with heparin), three were treated surgically, and two were diagnosed at autopsy. Of the 12 medically treated patients, 10 had marked improvement in leaflet movement and symptoms within 12 hours. Thus, 10 of 12 patients (83%) had a satisfactory response to medical therapy alone. No medically treated patient died or had a major complication resulting in permanent damage. However, four of the 12 medically treated patients had minor complications, including a transient episode of facial weakness in one patient, hematomas in two, and epistaxis in one. Late rethrombosis recurred in two patients in the medically treated group and was successfully retreated with thrombolytic therapy. At 3 months, all patients were alive and well. CONCLUSIONS Thrombolytic therapy can be used as the first line of therapy for thrombosed St. Jude valves with a low risk of permanent side effects and excellent chances of success. In most cases, surgery can be reserved for patients who do not respond to thrombolytic therapy.