Open Heart Surgery Recovery: Your Complete Guide to What to Expect as You Recover

Open Heart Surgery Recovery: Your Complete Guide to What to Expect as You Recover
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Open heart surgery is done to correct a heart defect, such as repairing heart valves. This surgery is a major operation and will require diligence in the recovery process on the part of the patient, those caring for him or her, and on the medical staff. Open heart surgery recovery consists of the time spent in the hospital immediately after surgery and the six to eight weeks that make up the first phase of recovery.

Hospital Stay

In most cases, patients will remain in the hospital for up to two weeks following this surgery. During this time they will receive incision care, pain management, will be monitored, and will begin their rehabilitative therapy. Depending on the individual patient, medications in addition to pain medication, such as their normal medications, antibiotics, or blood-thinning medications, may be administered. Also, each individual patient may have specific needs that the hospital staff will ensure is attended to. Pain medications and antibiotics are most often administered intravenously throughout the patient’s hospital stay. Blood-thinning medications are often oral, though they can be intravenous as well, and the patient’s normal medications will be administered as the patient normally takes them. Upon being released from the hospital the patient will receive detailed instructions for home care.

Pain and Incision Care at Home

When a patient is sent home, they may still be experiencing pain associated with the surgery. If the patient is in pain, they will be sent home with painkillers to take as their doctor prescribes. They will have to keep their incisions dry, only use water and soap to gently cleanse them (then immediately and gently dry them), and patients must refrain from applying any salves, dressings, oils, or ointments unless their doctor told them specifically to do so. Patients whose incisions are healing and dry are allowed to take ten minute showers as long as they do not allow the shower to directly hit any incisions. Soaking baths are not permitted. The water should be warm, and never cold or hot.

Returning to Normal Activities

All patients are different, but the normal time it takes a patient to return to normal activities, such as driving, work, sexual intercourse, and basic household chores, is six to eight weeks. If the patient should wait longer, their doctor will let them know. If after six to eight weeks the patient does not feel well enough to perform one or more of these activities, they should refrain from the activity and contact their doctor to discuss it.

Cardiac Rehabilitation

Cardiac rehabilitation is a necessary part of the open heart surgery recovery process. This allows patients to start an effective exercise program designed for them and their specific needs. In addition to exercise, patients will also be helped in developing a healthy diet plan, sleep schedule, and will be offered emotional counseling. Throughout this process, patients must keep all follow-up appointments with their cardiologist and other doctors to ensure their recovery goes as well as it possibly can.


Cleveland Clinic. (2010). Heart Surgery Recovery. Retrieved on August 24, 2010 from the Cleveland Clinic:

WebMD. (2010). Recovery from Heart Surgery. Retrieved on August 24, 2010 from WebMD:

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