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.
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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:
- Washing dishes.
- 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.
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.
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.