What You Can Expect as You Recover From Heart Surgery

Learn what you can (and shouldn’t) do as you heal
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.

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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.

Consider these general guidelines when it comes to what you should and shouldn’t do as your body heals.

From hospital discharge to 6 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.
  • 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.

Beyond 6 weeks of recovery

If you had open heart surgery and the 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.”

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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.

Beyond 10 weeks

At 10 weeks post-surgery, in most cases you can resume exercise that 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.

Give your heart time to heal

It’s important to remember that not everyone heals at the same rate. Health conditions such as diabetes or if you are on steroids can increase the time it takes your body to heal after surgery. Complete recovery takes about three to six months.

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“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. 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.

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