Recovering after heart surgery: What to expect

A heart surgery, be it a coronary artery bypass, aortic or mitral valve repair or replacement, is a major procedure. You may initially feel worse after the heart surgery. In fact, for several weeks, apart from dealing with wound pain, you may feel tired, irritable and even not as mentally sharp as before.

It is normal to take four to ten weeks to fully recover from heart surgery,” shares Assistant Professor Victor Chao, Senior Consultant, Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery, National Heart Centre Singapore (NHCS), a member of the SingHealth group.

Besides feeling generally weak, you may also experience:

  • Wound discomfort

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Mental fog and forgetfulness

  • Depression to a varying degree

How you will feel will depend on your overall health, the surgery’s outcome, and how well you take care of yourself after surgery. Generally, patients with more severe symptoms before surgery will experience a greater sense of relief after it, adds Prof Chao.

6 Doctor’s tips to recover fast from heart surgery

In the weeks and months after heart surgery, here's what you can do to ensure fast recovery:

1. Resume light physical activity

It is safe to cook, wash dishes and do light household chores after heart surgery, but you should wait about two months (maybe less if minimally invasive surgery techniques were used) to do the following:

  • Lifting objects heavier than 5kg (the load may differ for each patient)

  • Pushing or pulling heavy objects (as the sternum is still healing)

  • Driving a car

Upon discharge, you should move around at home and do some light exercise, such as taking strolls around your neighbourhood.

The level of physical activity should be increased gradually. Ask your doctor or consider joining a cardiac rehabilitation programme for individualised guidance on exercise.

2. Ensure proper wound care

You will receive pain medication to help you resume your daily living activities. Keeping the incision area clean and dry is important to prevent infection. Use only soap and warm water to clean the wound. Avoid hot baths.

See your doctor immediately if you notice the following signs of infection:

  • Oozing pus

  • Redness and tenderness around the incision

  • Opening up of incision

  • Fever (> 38º C)

If your pain is well controlled, you may slowly taper off the pain medication.

3. Avoid having back-to-back activities

After heart surgery, it is normal to tire easily as the body recovers. “Try to space out your daily activities and include rest periods in between,” says Prof Chao.

If you have flexibility at your job, it would be a good idea to ease back into your work schedule. If possible, start back at half-time and gradually increase your work time.

4. Get sufficient sleep

Many people complain of having trouble sleeping for some time after heart surgery. Normal sleep patterns should return within a few months, says Prof Chao.

It is important to inform your doctor if lack of sleep leads to changes in behavior or if normal sleep patterns do not return. In most cases, the following tips may help:

  • Stay active and do some exercise during daytime.

  • Avoid napping during the day.

Some patients may require a short course of sleep medication.

5. Expect slight cognitive decline initially

You may feel mentally less sharp after heart surgery, especially if the surgery involved stopping the heart and circulating the blood through a heart-lung machine.

In most cases, normal function returns. You will need to be patient with yourself and to avoid mentally stressful tasks during the first few weeks after surgery.

6. Manage your emotions

It is normal to feel sad, depressed or irritable after heart surgery. These emotional blues should however go away after a few weeks as you gradually get back to your normal routine and activities.

Keep emotions on an even keel by following these tips:

  • Get dressed every day.

  • Take a daily walk.

  • Resume your hobbies and social activities as soon as possible.

  • Share your feelings with others.

  • Get sufficient sleep and rest.

  • Join a cardiac rehabilitation programme or support group.

“Healing is a gradual process. There will be good and bad days – both physically and psychologically. Also bear in mind that while poor sleep, depression and cognitive dysfunction may happen after heart surgery, these are actually very rare, affecting less than five per cent of patients. Don’t hesitate to ask your doctor for help,” emphasises Prof Chao.

Ref : I23