Heart surgery and significant heart-related events, like a heart attack, require recovery time. Your recovery will begin in the hospital and will continue at home. You are considered to be in recovery until you are able to resume your normal daily activities.
Expectations for recovery
If you have heart surgery, your recovery will begin immediately after surgery while you’re still in the hospital.
Recovery in the hospital
At first, you will stay in a cardiovascular intensive care unit (ICU). When you’re in the ICU, hospital staff can monitor you closely to ensure your post-surgery recovery is going well. At first, you may have a tube in your throat that will help you breathe. You will have electrodes attached to your body to monitor your heart rate and rhythm. Your blood pressure and oxygen levels will also be monitored.
You will have access to pain medication. Most hospitals will give you what is commonly called a pain pump, which allows you to control the dose of pain medication you receive. This way, you can get more medication without having to call your nurse. A nurse will check on you regularly to ask you how you’re doing and to talk about any symptoms you’re experiencing, including pain. You will also have access to a nurse call button in case you have questions or concerns between visits from your nurse. Depending on your condition and the hospital rules, your family may be able to visit you.
Blood clots are a risk during and after heart surgery. You will most likely be given special socks to wear to help improve your circulation and avoid blood pooling and clotting. You may also receive blood thinning medication. At some point during your stay, your nurse will encourage you to move to a chair and even get out of your bed and walk around. Moving is one way to help avoid blood clots. Walking is also a good way to help reduce swelling in the legs, reduce pain, and keep your lungs clear of fluids.
Depending on how you’re doing and the type of surgery you had, you may move from the ICU to another part of the hospital after a few days, then you will spend another few days there before being released. But don’t be discouraged if you have to stay longer. If you have minimally invasive surgery, you will probably go home much sooner.
After you leave the hospital
Your initial recovery at home could take anywhere from six to eight weeks, if not a little longer. It will get easier each day, but you probably won’t be back to all of your normal activities until after that period. The most important things to remember about recovery are:
- Follow your doctor’s orders and your discharge instructions
- Call your doctor if you ever feel like something isn’t right
- Listen to your body; don’t push yourself too hard
- Be patient; you’ll recover about 80% in the first eight weeks, but the rest of the recovery will take up to a year
- Eat a healthy diet and start being active as soon as your doctor says it’s safe
Here are some important considerations while you’re in recovery.
Caring for your incisions
If you had open heart surgery, it will be very important to keep your wound clean and dry. You will get instructions about how to care for your wound. Make sure you follow the instructions. This will help you avoid infection. Call your doctor if you see any signs of infection, such as increased oozing or drainage from the wound, a rapid heart rate, the wound pulling apart, redness or warmth, or you have a fever of 100 F or higher.
You will most likely receive a prescription for pain medication and instructions about how much medication to take and how often it’s safe to take it. You may have pain and discomfort in your muscles and around your incision(s). This is normal, but it’s not normal to have pain that’s worse than what you experienced in the hospital. Call your doctor if your pain gets worse or can’t be managed.
Make sure you take all your medicine as prescribed. It’s important in managing your condition and helping you recover.
Follow the guidelines your doctor gave you. Most likely, you will be told to walk every day, but to avoid stairs until you get the okay from your doctor. Be careful not to exert yourself too much. Don’t stand in one place more than 15 minutes. Don’t pull or push anything heavy, and don’t lift anything that weighs more than 10 pounds until you get the okay to do it. Doing these things can strain your heart and can also cause wound problems.
Getting enough sleep
Your body needs sleep to heal well, but it can be difficult to get a good night’s sleep after surgery. If you pain is making it difficult to sleep, try changing the time you take the medication so it’s working by the time you want to sleep. You might also want to avoid drinking caffeine in the evening. Some people find it helpful to find a bedtime routine that helps them relax and fall asleep. Listening to music, turning off the lights, praying, meditating, whatever works. It you’re having trouble sleeping, consider turning off the TV and other screens at least an hour before you want to go to bed.
Most likely you will not be able to drive for at least four weeks after surgery, but if you had minimally invasive surgery, you may be able to get behind the wheel sooner. You can sit in a car, you just can’t drive.
Choosing your food
The healthier your diet is, the more likely you are to recover faster. Eating a healthy diet can actually help you heal more quickly. Talk to your doctor about whether there are any foods or drinks you should avoid.
If you don’t have much of an appetite after surgery, try eating smaller meals more frequently. Call your doctor if you still don’t feel like eating a week after you get home from the hospital.
Taking care of your mental health
Having heart surgery can be difficult for many people – beyond the pain and physical challenges. If you feel sad, unmotivated, or depressed, you won’t be not alone. But if you feel excessively depressed or the feelings don’t subside in a couple weeks, talk to your doctor. Take steps to keep the post-surgery blues at bay, such as going for walks, engaging in hobbies, spending time with friends, talking about your feelings, listening to music that makes you feel good, and getting plenty of sleep. You may also want to join a support group or take part in a cardiac rehabilitation program.
Following up with your doctor
Make sure you keep in touch with your doctor and get to all of your follow-up appointments. If you have any symptoms, including chest pain, a fast heart rate, palpitations, dizziness – anything – contact your doctor. If you have symptoms of a heart attack or stroke, call 911 or seek emergency medical attention right away.
What limitations to expect during recovery
During recovery, you won’t be able to do a lot of things you might have been able to do before surgery. Here are some limitations to expect:
- You shouldn’t drive for the first month or so.
- You shouldn’t lift more than 10 pounds or push or pull anything heavy.
- You shouldn’t climb stairs until you get the okay.
- You shouldn’t engage in sexual activity until your doctor says it’s okay.
- You shouldn’t engage in any strenuous physical activity until you get the green light.
- You shouldn’t smoke. You should quit smoking completely, but you definitely should not smoke during recovery.
- You should follow your doctor’s instructions regarding food/drink to avoid.
- You should give yourself permission to take it easy.
How will care change once you’re out of the hospital?
Once you leave the hospital, you will have regular follow-up visits with your doctor and heart surgeon. You may also have a nurse come to your home to help with things like wound care. Make sure you make it to all of your visits. Good follow-up care is important to your recovery.
Your doctor may also recommend cardiac rehabilitation or physical therapy.
Long-term prognosis after heart surgery
Many people feel better after heart surgery for 10 to 15 years or more. How well your recovery goes and how long the benefits of the surgery will last depend in part upon you. It’s important to make any lifestyle changes your doctor recommends and to take medications and follow your doctor’s instructions regarding cardiac rehabilitation or a physical therapy program. Taking good care of yourself can go a long way toward a successful recovery and an improved quality of life. Some of the important lifestyle changes recommended are:
- Exercise regularly, following your doctor’s or cardiac rehabilitation tech’s recommendations
- Eat a heart-healthy diet
- Maintain a healthy weight
- If you smoke, quit.
- Take steps to reduce stress, and manage the stress you can’t avoid
- Take care of your mental and emotional wellbeing
The Beaumont difference
Beaumont is a world leader in heart innovation. Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak has been ranked as one of the top cardiac and heart surgery programs in the nation for 22 consecutive years. Our heart and vascular teams provide the most advanced treatment options, including minimally invasive heart surgery. We have specialized heart care centers throughout Metro Detroit that offer technologies to care for even the sickest patients.
Our heart surgeons will work with you to ensure you get the care you need from a multidisciplinary team of experts.
Start your search for a heart surgeon at a Beaumont location near you.