July 19, 2022

Tips To Help You Recover From Heart Surgery

It’s important to remember that not everyone heals at the same rate

post heart surgery

If you’ve had heart surgery, you’re probably eager to know when you’ll feel more like yourself again and when you can get back to doing the things you like to do.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

So, how can you know when you’re ready? Of course, everyone heals at a different rate and you’ll want to work closely with your doctor. But, in general, you’ll do most of your healing — about 80% — in the first six to eight weeks after surgery, says cardiac surgeon Michael Zhen-Yu Tong, MD.

We talked with Dr. Tong about the do’s and don’ts of healing after heart surgery, and he suggests these general guidelines.

From hospital discharge to six weeks

As you begin getting back into your routine, remember to start with small tasks and take plenty of breaks. Don’t overdo it.

After you leave the hospital, unless your surgeon says otherwise, you may return to activities such as:

  • Walking.
  • Washing dishes.
  • Cooking.
  • Light cleaning.
  • Climbing stairs.

Some things are still off limits, though.Don’t lift, pull or push anything that weighs more than 10 pounds. It’s too soon to drive, too, but it’s OK to ride in a car.

Six to 10 weeks after surgery

If you had open heart surgery and your surgeon divided your sternum, it will be about 80% healed after six to eight weeks. “By that time, you’ll generally be strong enough to get back to normal activities, such as driving,” Dr. Tong says. “You can probably also return to work, unless your job is physically strenuous.”

Most importantly, this is the time to start a cardiac rehabilitation program. This is a monitored exercise program designed to increase your heart’s endurance. Through cardiac rehabilitation, you can gradually increase your activities, and your doctors will watch your progress closely. You’ll also learn more about how you can change your lifestyle and diet to keep your heart healthy.

Working through a cardiac rehabilitation program is the best way to find out when you’re strong enough to resume the more strenuous activities you enjoy.

Advertisement

10 weeks+ after surgery

At 10 weeks post-surgery, in most cases, you can resume exercises you enjoy, such as jogging, tennis, skiing or golf.

Regular exercise — 30 minutes, five times per week — that tests your heart’s limits in a controlled manner can go a long way toward keeping your heart healthy.

Managing pain after open heart surgery

Managing your pain is an important part of your recovery after heart surgery. In addition to keeping you comfortable, pain control can help speed your recovery and reduce your risk of developing certain complications after surgery, like pneumonia and blood clots. Your pain level should be managed to the point that you’re able to get up, walk around, cough and take deep breaths after surgery.

“After heart surgery, you need to be able to move with some degree of comfort to aid the healing process,” Dr. Tong says. “Keeping your pain level manageable will help make sure your recovery stays on track.”

You may leave the hospital with a prescription for pain medication and detailed instructions on how to use those medications to manage your pain.

“People are often apprehensive about taking narcotic pain medications because of the risk of addiction,” Dr. Tong notes. “That is a healthy and very reasonable fear and an important conversation to have with your doctor. There are safeguards in place to stem opioid abuse and protect you from abusing medications. When it comes to prescription pain medication, for most people, it’s a matter of listening to your body. If you need it, take it. If you don’t, don’t.”

If you have concerns about bringing narcotics into your home, or if you have a history of substance use disorder, be honest with your doctor. They’ll be able to discuss your options with you and determine a pain control plan with you.

Dr. Tong suggests alternating prescription pain medication and acetaminophen (Tylenol®) in the first few days after being discharged from the hospital. Then, wean off the prescription medication. People who’ve had heart surgery are usually able to find the relief they need from acetaminophen or other non-narcotic pain medication within about a week of being discharged.

Advertisement

Aside from medication, you may find these techniques can help keep you comfortable after surgery.

  • Apply lidocaine patches to minimize pain and itching near your incision site.
  • Hold a pillow to your chest. This is especially important when coughing or laughing.
  • Use a heating pad or ice pack. Your doctor can advise you on which is better for you.
  • Practice guided imagery for a “mental escape.”

Resuming normal activities after open heart surgery

It’s important to remember that not everyone heals at the same rate. People who have diabetes or are taking steroids may take longer to heal after surgery. Age can play a role, too, as recovery may take longer in adults who are older. Complete recovery takes about three to six months.

“At any phase in your recovery, using common sense is the best way to keep yourself from overdoing it,” Dr. Tong says.

If an activity causes pressure or pain, stop. If your sternum doesn’t heal properly after surgery, it can cause you a lot of pain and complicate the healing process.

If you aren’t sure an activity is safe, check with your surgeon first. And contact your doctor right away if you experience:

  • Redness on your chest larger than a quarter or drainage that resembles pus. This might signal an infection.
  • A “clicking” noise in your chest when you cough or breathe deeply. This could mean the wire holding your sternum together has broken.
  • Abnormal pain.

Overall, give yourself time to heal, while gradually doing a little more each week. Continue to work with your doctor until you’re up to speed on your normal activities.

Related Articles

Biker in foreground with healthy food in air behind him, cycling towards a healthy heartbeat.
November 8, 2023
Lowering Your Risk of Atrial Fibrillation After Heart Surgery

Making healthy lifestyle changes ahead of surgery can help you avoid AFib after

surgeons in an operating room
September 20, 2020
Is Minimally Invasive Heart Surgery an Option for You?

Three alternatives to open-heart surgery

Patient asking serious questions from doctor
March 3, 2019
6 Questions to Ask Your Surgeon if You Need Coronary Bypass Surgery

Understand what’s going to happen before and after surgery

How to Avoid Dangerous Infections After Your Heart Surgery
December 25, 2016
How to Avoid Dangerous Infections After Your Heart Surgery

5 ways to lower your infection risk

Doctor shaking hands with patient, with large heart and EKG line behind them
February 19, 2024
How Weight Affects Your Heart

Having underweight, having overweight and having obesity can be dangerous for your heart

Adult male using rowing machine at gym
February 16, 2024
Why Exercise Matters for Your Heart Health

Exercise lowers risk for heart conditions, improves mental health and reduces visceral fat that can compromise your organs

seated doctor and female in doctor office, with female's hand on heart, with daughter
February 8, 2024
Here’s When You Should Go to the Hospital for a Dangerous Heart Rate

A resting heart rate below 35–40 beats per minute or over 100 beats per minute may be cause for concern

beet and carrot juice in a glass surrounded by beets and carrots
February 1, 2024
Can Certain Drinks Lower Your Blood Pressure?

While not magic elixirs, some drinks like beet juice and skim milk may help keep numbers down

Trending Topics

glass of cherry juice with cherries on table
Sleepy Girl Mocktail: What’s in It and Does It Really Make You Sleep Better?

This social media sleep hack with tart cherry juice and magnesium could be worth a try

Exercise and diet over three months is hard to accomplish.
Everything You Need To Know About the 75 Hard Challenge

Following five critical rules daily for 75 days may not be sustainable

Person in foreground standing in front of many presents with person in background holding gift bags.
What Is Love Bombing?

This form of psychological and emotional abuse is often disguised as excessive flattery

Ad