Your Guide to Recovering from Heart Surgery
 
Recovering from heart surgery can generate questions. Here are some answers.

Your Guide to Recovering from Heart Surgery

By Jennifer Boidy, RN

If you've been told that you're a candidate for heart surgery, there are surely several questions swirling through your mind. You're probably wondering what life will be like after surgery and how you'll manage your recovery. Keeping in mind that everyone's recovery is unique, here are answers to some common questions about heart surgery aftercare.

How Long Is the Recovery Time?

Your expected recovery time depends on the type of surgery you have and your general health. While your surgeon will give you the best estimate of how long your recovery will take, there are some general guidelines.

Open-heart surgeries usually require a hospital stay of four to five days. Once you're released from the hospital, it usually takes six to eight weeks for your breastbone and chest muscles to heal as you return, gradually, to a normal daily routine.

Less invasive procedures — such as stent placement or ablation, where tissue that's attributed to abnormal heart rhythms is scarred or removed — usually only require an overnight hospital stay. At-home recovery for these procedures will typically take up to a month. Keep in mind that any unforeseen complications will extend your recovery time.

How Will My Heart Condition Be Monitored After Surgery?

Your doctors and nurses will watch you closely during and after your surgery, and they'll give you instructions to follow to help you on your road to recovery. Some of these instructions will help you and your healthcare provider monitor your heart condition.

  • Check your pulse every day: Your pulse indicates whether your heart rate is within a safe range. Ask your healthcare provider what a healthy range looks like for you. In general, you should call your doctor if your pulse is irregular, which means more than 110 beats per minute or less than 60 beats per minute.
  • Weigh yourself every day: Keep a record of your weight, and bring that record to your follow-up appointments. A sudden increase in your weight is often a sign of fluid retention, which could indicate that your heart isn't functioning like it should, or that you might have a kidney problem. Notify your doctor if you gain 2 pounds or more in one day or 4 pounds or more in one week.
  • Take your medications as prescribed: Once you're home, continue to take your heart, diabetes and high blood pressure medications, as well as any other prescribed medications. If you think that you should stop taking a medication, talk to your provider before making any changes.
  • Keep your follow-up appointments: Post-surgery medical appointments are important for monitoring your heart condition. Make sure that you make these appointments, and bring along any results or questions you may have for your doctor.
  • Recognize and react accordingly to warning signs and symptoms: If you experience chest pain that's not caused by your incision, nausea or vomiting, shortness of breath, a severe headache that doesn't go away, or pain in your jaws, teeth, arms or ears, call your healthcare provider or 911 immediately.

How Will I Take Care of Myself at Home?

Your medical team will provide you with specific self-care instructions to follow at home. During the first week or two, you should have a caregiver help you with your initial aftercare. This can be a family member, friend or home health aide.

Heart surgery aftercare at home will include:

  • Caring for your incision and monitoring for signs of infection. When cleaning your incision, remember to use warm — not hot — water and to pat the area dry.
  • Gradually resuming your normal physical activity and improving your heart and lung functions with light exercises, such as walking and strength-training activities involving a chair. Yoga can also be a beneficial exercise.
  • Taking your medications as prescribed by your doctor.
  • Monitoring your weight and noting any fluctuations.

What Can I Do to Ease Back into My Daily Routine?

You'll likely be anxious to get back to your daily routine after heart surgery, but you must allow your body to heal properly. Overdoing it could slow your recovery.

  • Follow your health team's recommendations: This is particularly important for resuming activities such as lifting heavy objects and driving.
  • Listen to your body: If you tire easily or feel pressure or pain during an activity, stop. Pushing yourself too hard increases the risk of injury or complications.
  • Help your body heal properly: Eating a heart-healthy diet, being active, reducing your stress, getting enough sleep and avoiding smoking are all important lifestyle choices that will help you heal and get back to your daily routine.
  • Be patient: Your recovery may move more slowly than you'd like, but you will experience fewer setbacks if you take your time.

Even though it's your heart that's undergoing the surgery, your entire body will go through a lot during this process, too. You'll need time to recover and regain your strength. By taking your recovery one day at a time, you'll heal faster and feel better before you know it.