Rehabilitation and recovery after open heart surgery is a long process. Initial recovery takes at least six weeks, and positive results are partly dependent on longer-term changes in lifestyle and diet.
This article will help you understand the benefits of open-heart surgery and possible follow-up surgeries, as well as lifestyle changes your doctor is likely to recommend during your recovery.
Benefits of surgery
Surgeons use open-heart surgery for conditions such as heart attack, heart failure, valve disease, and coronary artery disease. This is the most common method for performing coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG).
Given the scope of open-heart surgery and its inherently invasive nature, it’s helpful to know that it has a long-standing and high overall success rate in correcting life-threatening issues and improving quality of life. .
Beyond that, open-heart surgeries offer a number of other positive effects, including:
- Reduction of chest pain
- Improved respiratory function
- Healthier blood oxygen levels in the blood
- Reduced risk of stroke or complications in blood vessels
Maintaining the benefits of open heart surgery involves a lifelong dedication to certain lifestyle changes, each of which is described below.
Possible future surgeries
Although open heart surgeries are largely successful, there are cases where they don’t work or the treatment leads to other complications. Even those who have had successful operations may require additional treatment down the line.
Here’s a quick breakdown of what may follow:
- Re-operation following internal bleeding: There are rare cases of internal bleeding after surgery (post-surgical hemorrhage), which is detected immediately afterwards. This requires reopening of the surgical site and procedures to correct the problem.
- Minimally invasive cardiac treatments: Heart problems can reoccur. Options include minimally invasive heart surgery, stenting (placing structures in the vessels that help keep them clear and open), and others.
- Valve repair surgery: Valve repair surgery may be needed due to issues with stenosis (valve not opening properly) or regurgitation (valve leaking). This can be achieved via open-heart or less invasive approaches.
- Implantation of a pacemaker: Atrial fibrillation – irregular heartbeat – can follow open-heart CABG surgery. In rare cases, this may require the implantation of an electronic pacemaker.
- Heart transplant: A heart transplant may be considered if open-heart surgery has not completely corrected the problem. It can also be done if heart disease or other conditions have continued to progress and other approaches are not expected to work.
Throughout your recovery, be aware of how you feel. Do not hesitate to inform the medical professionals if anything seems abnormal.
As you recover, your health care provider will likely recommend a cardiac rehabilitation program. You’ll work with professionals to strengthen your cardiovascular system through exercise and learn how to adjust your lifestyle to manage your risk factors, including those discussed here. Your program will be tailored to your individual needs.
Once you have obtained your “diploma” in cardiac rehab, you will need to continue to follow the recommendations that will be given to you for life. In the long term, these lifestyle changes can help prevent further complications and maintain heart health.
Another long-term priority after open heart surgery will be to strengthen the heart and maintain that strength.
Even something as simple as taking a daily half-hour walk can be very helpful.
Changing your diet can bring major health benefits. Follow these tips:
- Avoid saturated fats. Known as the “unhealthy” type of fat, there are higher levels of saturated fat in foods like red meat, palm oil, cheese and butter. It is recommended that these fats be only 5-6% of your total caloric intake.
- Eat polyunsaturated fats. Generally considered healthier, polyunsaturated fats are found in nuts, fish, seeds, and oysters, among other foods. This type of fat should only make up 10% of your daily caloric intake.
- Eat monounsaturated fats. The healthiest of the three types of fat, monounsaturated fats, are found in avocados, olive oil and some nuts. This type should be featured and accounts for 15% to 20% of the calories you consume.
- Reduce cholesterol intake. Cholesterol is present in a number of foods, including red meat, eggs, shellfish, sardines, and organ meats, among others. It should be limited to no more than 300 milligrams (mg) per day.
- Reduce sodium (salt) intake. Due to its potential effect on blood pressure, salt intake should not exceed 2.3 grams (g) per day. Ideally, you should be aiming for a goal of no more than 1.5 grams per day.
Stress and habits
Other steps to follow include:
- Stress control. Stress, anger, and other emotional reactions are common after surgery and can hamper your rehabilitation. Regular exercise and meditation can help you regulate your emotions while reducing stress. If you are having difficulty, consider individual or group therapy.
- Stop smoking. Smoking can complicate healing and has a very negative overall impact on health. If it’s hard to quit smoking, it’s worth considering medical help or other options.
Continuing medical care
In the weeks and months following open heart surgery, you will need to see your healthcare team for a number of follow-up appointment. This is an essential part of recovery, so be sure to stay consistent with these.
Throughout recovery and beyond, you may be prescribed various medications to manage associated conditions. Stay consistent with medications. Be sure to follow the instructions carefully and take the correct doses as prescribed.
Finally, make sure you managing conditions that can impact your heart health, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes. The lifestyle changes you put in place can help. Your provider may also recommend medication for these issues.
Despite its general success and long-term use, open-heart surgery can be a daunting and frightening prospect. However, the benefits often outweigh the risks, and in many cases surgery is literally a lifesaver.
A word from Verywell
The road to full recovery after open heart surgery is a long one and, as noted, long-standing lifestyle changes must be made. But it is also a well-worn path. Every day, thousands of heart surgeries are performed successfully. And every day, thousands more post-operative patients find new life. Your heart is worth the effort.