How Can You Recover Faster From Heart Surgery?

Learn what factors play a role
How Can You Recover Faster From Heart Surgery?

If you’re scheduled for heart surgery, you probably can’t wait to be at the other end, and fully recovered. How long will it take? Recovery time among different patients varies a lot.

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To shorten recovery time, you need to know what to expect after heart surgery. Understand the factors that can shorten your recovery, and do everything in your power to pursue them. This can make a big difference.

What affects recovery time after heart surgery?

If you’re planning elective heart surgery, ask your doctor if there are steps you may take beforehand to improve your health. These efforts may help shorten your recovery time.

With any heart surgery, some factors are in our control, and some less so. These include:

  • Your overall health. One of the biggest predictors for how long your recovery takes is how healthy you are as you go into the surgery. Someone who’s been sick for a long time prior to heart surgery will take a longer time to recover than someone who is in relatively good health.
  • Whether you smoke or are overweight. If smoking or excess weight are problems for you, do everything you can to work on these issues before surgery.
  • Type of surgery. Your recovery begins as soon as the surgery is over. Depending on the type of surgery (open-heart vs. minimally invasive, for instance), you may stay in the intensive care unit for several days. You’ll likely then follow up with several days in another part of the hospital. During this time, you’ll begin getting out of bed and increasing your activity level a little each day.

Tips to help you heal

Keeping the following things in mind will help you heal after heart surgery:

Listen to your body, especially in the first two months after surgery. 

The vast majority of your healing — about 80 percent of it — occurs during the first two months after your surgery. During this time, you will attend cardiac rehabilitation and continue to gradually increase your activity level.

It is very important to work on increasing your activity level before cardiac rehab starts because in most programs this will be six weeks after surgery. You’ll want to do as much as possible, but you may find that you tire easily or need to stop and rest during activities that you used to do with ease. Listen to your body. Make sure that you’re not pushing yourself too hard and risking injury or complications.

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Follow your doctor’s recommendations.

When it comes to resuming specific activities, it’s important to listen to your doctor. For example, you may need to wait at least six weeks before riding a bicycle or lifting things because your breastbone needs time to heal. Talk to your doctor about when you can start driving again.

Be patient.

After the first two months, the rest of your recovery will probably move more slowly. The remaining 20 percent typically takes almost a year. During this time, you should expect to continue to regain strength and endurance.

Eat right and get active when you’re ready.

A healthy diet and a good exercise routine go a long way toward helping you feel better than ever once you’ve recovered from your surgery.

What’s normal — and what’s not?

A certain amount of discomfort is normal after any surgery. Your doctor can provide you with information about what you may experience as part of your recovery.

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You should begin to feel like you’re starting to get back to normal after about eight or 10 weeks of recovery. If you’re still experiencing shortness of breath or significant pain in your incision at that point, talk to your doctor.

Also, watch for warning signs that might mean you need immediate medical attention. Redness or drainage resembling pus in your chest area may signal infection, for example. Abnormal (or increased) pain is also a red flag.

While you will have good days and bad days, if you feel like you are sliding backward more than a couple of days in a row, don’t hesitate to call!  Your care team would rather hear from you early if there is any question about a problem with your recovery.

Contact your doctor if you have questions or concerns about what you experience during your recovery. Making sure you’re well-informed helps you avoid problems and speeds your recovery as much as possible.

Contributor: Douglas Johnston, MD

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