Recovering after Open Heart Surgery: From Wound Care to Exercise


To say that heart surgery is an invasive event is quite an understatement. It can take your body several months to heal from the surgeon’s cuts and the changes made to your heart and the tissues and valves surrounding it. You need to remain patient during the healing process and understand that recovery isn’t one single thing. It consists of several areas that you must pay close attention to in order to feel better as soon as possible.

Caring for Your Wound

Your surgeon should give you the go-ahead to take a bath or shower within a few days of your surgery. You will need to keep the area dry all other times as well as take special care to keep it clean. Unfortunately, some heart surgery patients develop an infection after they go home. If you are experiencing signs of an infection, please go to the Emergency Department immediately:

  • Fever above 100 degrees Fahrenheit
  • More oozing or draining from the surgical wound than usual
  • Warmth or redness surrounding the cut
  • The edges around the surgical scar start pulling apart
  • Your breastbone cracks or shifts with movement

Resume Driving and Regular Activity Slowly

The typical time that patients can resume driving after heart surgery is one month. Your time may be longer or shorter depending on the extent of your heart problem and the invasiveness of your surgery. There’s no need to wait to ride in a car as a passenger.

It will take between six and eight weeks for you to regain the strength you need to complete the same level of household chores that you did before heart surgery. In the meantime, avoid pulling or pushing anything heavy and don’t lift anything that weighs more than 10 pounds.

Additionally, avoid standing in one place without moving for more than 15 minutes. It’s important to walk every day as part of your rehabilitation. Unless your doctor says otherwise, you can go up and down stairs right after you get home.

What to Do About Pain Relief

Your doctor should provide you with a prescription for a strong pain reliever prior to your discharge from the hospital. You can expect pain and soreness near your heart muscles and the location where the surgeon made a cut. Itching, numbness, and tightness are normal post-surgical effects as well. If the pain is as bad or worse than it was before surgery, and head to the Emergency Department immediately.

Expect soreness in your legs after heart bypass surgery. This is because the surgeon must use one or more veins in your legs as grafts. You can speed the recovery from stiffness and soreness by participating in gentle exercises.

Don’t Feel Surprised by Strong Emotions

Getting through heart surgery is no easy feat physically or emotionally. It’s normal to feel depressed and worried about your health, but try not to dwell on these emotions for too long. They can make you feel helpless instead of empowered to change your own health. Spending the day alone in your pajamas can make you feel even more discouraged. Make sure that you get dressed and set small goals for yourself each day. Resuming hobbies and activities you enjoyed prior to your surgery can help if they’re not too physically demanding at first.

You will feel more tired than usual for a while, so make sure that you get enough sleep every night. Don’t feel obligated to visit with friends and family for more than a few minutes if you’re not up to it yet. They should understand if they care about your well-being. A support group made up of other people who have recently gone through heart surgery is a good resource when you feel frustrated and misunderstood.

Eat Smaller Meals and Make Healthy Food Choices

It’s normal not to have much of an appetite for a few weeks after heart surgery. Since you still need the nourishment, eat smaller portions more frequently throughout the day. However, please let your doctor know if your normal appetite hasn’t returned in this time.

Your cardiologist at UPMC Western Maryland may refer you to a dietician to help you change your diet for the better. A heart-healthy diet requires you to watch your intake of sodium and fat, eat several servings per day of fruits and vegetables, and many other things. While the changes might seem overwhelming, your dietician will work with you to create a daily eating plan that helps to keep your heart as healthy as possible.

Getting Enough Sleep After Heart Surgery

Don’t feel alarmed if it’s difficult for you to get to sleep up to a few months after your surgery. If pain keeps you from falling and staying asleep, try to take your medication about 30 minutes before you go to bed. Invest in a few extra pillows and arrange them in a way that’s most comfortable for you before you lie down for the night. Remember that drinking beverages or eating food with caffeine shortly before bedtime can make it harder to fall asleep.

Because of your fatigue after surgery, you will probably need to rest after most physical activity. We recommend that you try not to go to sleep during these rest periods as it can interfere with your sleep at night. If insomnia continues to affect you, try listening to soothing music and clearing your mind of stressful thoughts right before you go to sleep. When none of these ideas work, contact your doctor to discuss other possible solutions for your sleep troubles.

You Will Get There

We live at a fast pace in America, and surgery forces you to slow down whether you want to or not. Give yourself permission to take it easy as you recover and always follow your doctor’s recommendations. Don’t forget that your care team is there to help you find solutions to anything that continues to trouble you after your heart surgery.

Please note, the information provided throughout this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content, including text, graphics, images, and video, on or available through this website is for general information purposes only. If you are experiencing relating symptoms, please visit your doctor or call 9-1-1 in an emergency.