If you’ve had heart surgery, you’re probably looking forward to when you’ll feel more like yourself again and when you can start doing the things you love to do again.
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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 make most of your recovery — about 80 percent — within the first six to eight weeks after surgery, says cardiac surgeon Michael Zhen-Yu Tong, MD.
We spoke 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
When you start getting back into your routine, remember to start small and take lots of breaks. Don’t overdo it.
After leaving the hospital, unless otherwise advised by your surgeon, you can resume activities such as:
- While walking.
- Wash the dishes.
- Light cleaning.
- To go up the stairs.
Some things are still off limits, however. Do not lift, pull or push anything that weighs more than 10 pounds. It’s too early to drive too, but it’s good to drive.
Six to 10 weeks after surgery
If you have had open heart surgery and your surgeon has divided your breastbone, it will be about 80% healed after six to eight weeks. “By then you’ll usually be strong enough to resume your normal activities, such as driving,” says Dr. Tong. “You can probably also return to work, unless your work is physically strenuous.”
More importantly, now is the time to start a cardiac rehabilitation program. It is a controlled exercise program designed to increase the endurance of your heart. With cardiac rehabilitation, you can gradually increase your activities, and your doctors will closely monitor your progress. You’ll also learn more about how you can change your lifestyle and diet to keep your heart healthy.
Following a cardiac rehab program is the best way to know when you’re strong enough to return to the more strenuous activities you enjoy.
10 weeks+ after surgery
At 10 weeks after surgery, in most cases, you can resume exercising that you enjoy, such as jogging, tennis, skiing, or golf.
Regular exercise – 30 minutes, five times a week – that tests your heart’s limits in a controlled way can go a long way in keeping your heart healthy.
Managing pain after open heart surgery
Managing your pain is an important part of your recovery from 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, such as pneumonia and blood clots. Your pain level needs to be managed to the point that you can stand up, walk around, cough, and breathe deeply after surgery.
“After heart surgery, you need to be able to move with some degree of comfort to help the healing process,” says Dr. Tong. “Keeping your pain level manageable will help ensure your recovery stays on track.”
You can leave the hospital with a prescription for pain medication and detailed instructions on how to use these medications to manage your pain.
“People often fear taking narcotic painkillers because of the risk of addiction,” notes Dr. Tong. “It’s a healthy and very reasonable fear and an important conversation to have with your doctor. Safeguards are in place to curb opioid abuse and protect you from drug abuse. Regarding the Prescription painkillers, for most people, it’s all about listening to your body. If you need it, take it. If you don’t, don’t.
If you’re worried about bringing narcotics into your home or have a history of drug abuse, be honest with your doctor. They can discuss your options with you and work out a pain control plan with you.
Dr. Tong suggests alternating between prescription pain relievers and acetaminophen (Tylenol®) in the first few days after discharge from hospital. Then, wean off the prescription drugs. People who have had heart surgery are usually able to find the relief they need with acetaminophen or other non-narcotic pain relievers within a week of discharge.
Besides medication, you may find that these techniques can help you stay comfortable after surgery.
- Apply lidocaine patches to minimize pain and itching near your incision site.
- Hold a pillow against your chest. This is especially important when coughing or laughing.
- Use a heating pad or an ice pack. Your doctor can advise you on what is best for you.
- Practice guided imagery for a “mental escape”.
Resuming normal activities after open heart surgery
It is important to remember that not everyone heals at the same rate. People with diabetes or taking steroids may take longer to heal after surgery. Age may also play a role, as recovery may take longer in older adults. Full recovery takes about three to six months.
“In any phase of your recovery, using common sense is the best way to prevent yourself from overdoing it,” says Dr. Tong.
If an activity causes pressure or pain, stop. If your breastbone doesn’t heal properly after surgery, it can cause you a lot of pain and complicate the healing process.
If you are unsure whether an activity is safe, consult your surgeon first. And contact your doctor immediately if you experience:
- Redness on the chest greater than a quarter or pus-like discharge. This could signal an infection.
- A “pop” in your chest when you cough or breathe deeply. It could mean that the wire holding your breastbone together has broken.
- Abnormal pain.
Overall, give yourself time to heal, while gradually doing a little more each week. Keep working with your doctor until you are up to speed with your normal activities.