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Caring For Yourself After A Heart Surgery

Heart surgery recovery takes a lot of care.The first phase of heart surgery recovery can last from 6 to 8 weeks. When you’re released from the hospital, you will have to follow a set of instructions for post-surgery care. These will help you heal physically and feel better.

Care of the incision after heart surgery

Depending on your surgery, your chest incision may extend through layers of skin, muscle and bone. Your skin should be healed by the time of discharge, your breastbone should take six to eight weeks, and your scar should fade in approximately six months to one year. Tingling, itching, and numbness are normal sensations associated with surgical wounds and will eventually disappear. During the first six months after surgery, protect your incisions from the sun by wearing a shirt or sun block. For women, wearing a soft bra to support your breasts will minimize incisional discomfort.

Dealing with Discomfort

Itching, tightness or numbness along your incisions is normal when you go home after surgery.

It is also normal to have muscle or incision discomfort in your chest if you are doing an activity. But you should not have the same pain that you had before surgery; if you do, let your doctor know. Also, if your sternum (breastbone) feels like it moves, pops or cracks when you move around, call your doctor.

If you had bypass surgery and saphenous vein grafts were taken, you also may have pain or discomfort in your legs from the incisions. To help ease this discomfort, try walking or doing activities that will move and stretch your legs.

In order to take proper care of the incision after heart surgery, it is important to keep the incision clean and dry. Use Use only soap and water to cleanse the area. You should be able to take a bath or shower within a few days.

Seek medical advice if signs of infection appear. These include: Increased drainage or oozing from the incision, Opening of the incision line, Redness or warmth around the incision and Increased body temperature (greater than 100°F)

You should also seek advice if it seems the sternum (breastbone) has moved, or if it pops or cracks with movement.

Swelling in Your Legs and Feet

Removing a vein from your leg sometimes impairs the ability to return blood to the heart efficiently. The result is swelling in your feet and lower legs. If you have leg incisions, you should continue to wear your white support stockings given to you at the hospital. These should be worn as long as swelling persists during the day and removed in the evening before going to bed.To help alleviate the swelling:

  • Prop your feet up when you are sitting or lying down, so that your feet are higher than your heart level. If you are sitting on the couch, put your feet up on a higher chair or ottoman. If you are lying down, put pillows under your legs and feet.
  • Do not cross your legs.
  • Even if your legs are swollen, walk daily to help circulation.
  • Try using hospital support hose to cut down on the swelling.

If swelling persists or worsens, notify your doctor.

Diet after heart surgery

A healthy diet will help the healing process. It is common after surgery to have a poor appetite at first. If this is the case, try to eat smaller, more frequent meals. Appetite should return within the first few weeks. If it does not, seek medical advice

Activity after heart surgery

For the first six to eight weeks, the following guidelines are recommended:

  • Gradually increase activity. Household chores can be done, but standing in one place longer than 15 minutes is not recommended
  • No lifting objects that weigh more than 2.5lbs
  • No pushing or pulling heavy objects
  • Climbing up and down stairs several times a day, especially when the patient first arrives home, is not recommended. Try to arrange activities so the patient goes downstairs in the morning and upstairs when it is time for bed
  • Walk daily. Guidelines for walking will be given by the doctor upon the patient’s return home

Taking a Shower or Bath

You may shower as usual using warm, rather than hot water. It is OK to let warm water run down over your incisions; however do not take a tub bath, soak in a Jacuzzi or go in a pool for approximately four weeks. Have someone help you get in and out of the shower until you regain your strength.

Consider using a shower stool if you feel weak or unsteady. Wash your incision gently every day with warm water and mild soap then pat dry with a soft towel. Do not apply lotion, powder, or ointments until the scab has fallen off (approximately 3-4 weeks). If you have paper strips on your incisions, they should peel off as you shower daily. If they don’t, you may gently peel them off five days following discharge.

If the sutures are in your chest, shower with your back facing the water spray. If you cannot take a shower, a quick 10 minute bath is okay, but do not soak in the bathtub. Use only normal soap, not perfumed soap or body wash. Do not put the soap directly onto the incision and do not rub the incisions. Put soapy water on your hand or washcloth and gently wash your incisions. Only use a washcloth to rub when the scabs are gone and the skin is completely healed. After the shower or bath, dry yourself thoroughly. Pat your incisions dry, making sure not to rub them.

Taking Care of Your Incisions While Traveling

Doctors usually recommend no driving for about six weeks. This may be shorter for patients who have had minimally invasive surgery. Check with your doctor what is appropriate for you.

Going Home by Plane

When you are making flight reservations, let the airline know that you are recovering from surgery. If you had heart surgery, the sternal wires placed during surgery may set off the airport alarms. Because the distance may be too far to walk, ask for a wheelchair to take you to and from the plane. Once in the plane, stand up in the aisle and stretch your legs for a few minutes every hour to get your circula¬tion going. If possible, also walk up and down the aisle.

Going Home by Car

When riding in a car, remember to stop every hour and walk 5 to 10 minutes to get your circulation going. You should wear your seatbelt, placing a small towel in between the seatbelt and your incision. If your car trip is longer than two hours, we recommend that you stay overnight in a hotel, get a good night’s rest, then resume the next morning.

Emotions after heart surgery

It is common for patients to feel sad. These feelings should go away after the first few weeks. If they do not, seek medical advice. It may help to:

  • Get dressed every day
  • Walk daily
  • Resume hobbies and social activities
  • Talk. Limit visits to 15 minutes at first, then increase them depending on how the patient feels.
  • Get a good night’s sleep

Pain relief after heart surgery

Some muscle or incision discomfort, itching, tightness or numbness along the incision are to be expected. However, the pain will be different from that experienced before surgery and pain medications will be prescribed.

For heart bypass surgery, there may be more pain in the legs than around the chest incision if leg veins were grafted. Walking, daily activities and time will help to lessen leg discomfort and stiffness.

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