The effects of major surgery on your life, pre-op, and post-op, can be extreme, and recovery may change the way you participate in daily life for an extended period of time. When it comes to open-heart surgery, patient recovery is dependent on the success of the procedure as well as pre-existing health concerns and conditions. Approximately 500,000 patients undergo open-heart surgery annually, and the procedure addresses the repair of complicated heart conditions, from complex aortic and cardiac procedures to the more typical coronary artery bypass.

Patient Perspective: Recovering from Open Heart Surgery

Respected cardiothoracic surgeon, Lindita Çoku, MD, understands the importance of a quality after-surgery care plan. “The health and healing of a post-surgical patient often follow a standard progression, but the key to optimal health and recuperation is adding in the personal elements to the treatment plan,” said Dr. Çoku. “With the patient’s unique health profile in mind, recovery from surgical meets the body’s specific needs, and the best chance of full recovery occurs.”

While the recovery rate for these procedures is promising, it’s important to follow your surgeon’s post-op instructions for the best results. It’s important to know what to expect and how to promote the quickest return to normal life, understanding that patients require at least two to three months to heal.

Following Surgery

The initial moments after waking from anesthesia can be disorienting for most patients. In the ICU, you’ll be monitored and treated using a variety of IV tubes and a catheter to drain your bladder. A ventilator allows you to breathe during and after the surgery. While cardiothoracic procedures are considered common, the ICU staff will monitor you closely during those first hours, sometimes days, of recovery.

You’ll experience thirst and sluggishness and may find yourself nauseous. Some patients attest to feeling or hearing a clicking sound in their chest when they move or breathe. This occurs when the surgeon separates the breastbone to reach your heart, and the noise typically ceases once the sternum heals. After the procedure, your surgeon rejoined the sternum with wire which, when the breastbone heals, is no longer required. Typically, these wires are left in place to avoid another invasive incision.

The first few days after surgery are the most challenging, and you will require medication to cope with post-surgical pain. While in the hospital, regular sleep patterns are often disrupted by blood tests, imaging, and other minor procedures to monitor the healing process.

During your hospital stay, most hospitals permit visitors. They should expect to find you pale and possibly puffy throughout your face and body. While you are intubated, you’ll be unable to speak, and many patients find it helpful to arrange other ways to communicate post-procedure.

Leaving the ICU

Unless complications arise, most patients leave the ICU within 24 to 96 hours and are moved to a cardiac care unit or standard hospital room. There, your heart will continue to be monitored, and you’ll remain for several days before being discharged. All recovery times are dependent on your body’s capacity for healing and can be influenced by pre-existing conditions or surgical complications.

Home Recovery

Once you’re discharged, the length of your home recovery is dependent on the following factors:

  • Type of surgery
  • General health before the surgery
  • Complications from surgery

The most common coronary artery bypass surgery typically requires a recovery time of six to twelve weeks, while more complex procedures require a lengthier healing time. Your surgeon and post-op team will continue to monitor your condition and set expectations for healing. It’s important to follow their recommendations to maintain your healing trajectory.

What You Can Do to Promote Recovery from Open Heart Surgery

Get Plenty of Rest and Sleep

Expect to experience trouble sleeping after your heart surgery. Most patients regain their sleep patterns within a few months. If pain is interrupting your sleep, talk to your doctor who may instruct you to change the time of day when you take your pain medications. Avoid caffeine after dinner to promote healthy sleep habits. Lack of sleep can affect your behavior and mood, and your doctor may have solutions to help restore your sleep patterns and ensure the rest your healing body requires.

Pay Attention to Your Diet

Eating well can promote and even expedite the healing process. Your doctor may advise you on the best diet after surgery, and you should plan on eating protein options including meat, eggs, tofu, legumes, and fish. Eating two servings of oily fish—like salmon, mackerel, or sardines—will restore your heart’s healthy omega-3 fats.

Tend to Your Surgical Wound

The doctor will instruct you about proper wound care, and you should be able to bathe fully within a few days of returning home. Carefully wash the wound area using simple soap and water. A healthy diet can promote wound healing.

  • Call your doctor immediately if you experience any of the following complications:
  • Fever great than 100 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Warmth or redness around the cut
  • Separation of the healing wound/incision edges
  • Increased oozing or drainage
  • Cracking or shifting of your breastbone

Manage Your Pain Safely

Your doctor will prescribe the necessary pain therapies for home use. Expect itching, tightness, and numbness around the surgical incision. Your pain will dissipate gradually. With coronary bypass procedures, your legs may experience more pain than your chest. This occurs when the surgeon took veins from the legs for grafting.

Control Physical Activity

Follow the advice of your doctor to gradually phase in and build up your physical activity. In general, you should not stand in one place for more than 15 minutes. Avoid lifting, pushing, or pulling heavy items or any object weighing more than ten pounds. Your doctor may encourage short walks every day, and it’s important to abstain from driving until you’re cleared by your medical team.

Resuming Regular Life

It’s normal to feel less energetic and enthusiastic after major surgery. Physical trauma can affect your mental state, and those feelings usually pass after the first few weeks. If depression, fatigue, or malaise persist, consult your doctor.

Engaging in a regular routine is a mood booster and will help with both mental and physical health. As your doctor allows, begin reconnecting with your hobbies and social activities. Welcome visitors, but set clear boundaries to avoid overdoing it and setting back your healing. Initial visits should be limited to around fifteen minutes, and you can increase that time as your health improves. When you continue checking in with your doctor and following instructions specific to your personal care plan, your heart surgery will open up new opportunities for improved health and quality of life.