Sternotomy Precautions: What to Expect at Home

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Your Recovery

A sternotomy is a procedure that allows your doctor to reach your heart or nearby organs and blood vessels. First the doctor made a cut (incision) in the skin over your breastbone (sternum). Then he or she cut through your sternum. When your surgery was finished, the doctor reconnected your sternum. The doctor most likely used wire, which will stay in your body even after your sternum has healed.

Full recovery from surgery that includes a sternotomy can take months. Recovery from the sternotomy includes healing of the sternum and slowly building up your physical strength.

This care sheet gives you a general idea about how long it will take for you to recover. But each person recovers at a different pace. Follow the steps below to feel better as quickly as possible.

How can you care for yourself at home?

For the first 3 months

  • Avoid activities that strain your chest or upper arm muscles. This includes pushing a lawn mower or vacuum, mopping floors, or swinging a golf club or tennis racquet.
  • Avoid strenuous activities, such as bicycle riding outdoors, jogging, weight lifting, or heavy aerobic exercise, until your doctor says it's okay.
  • For 2 to 3 months, avoid lifting anything that would make you strain. This may include heavy grocery bags and milk containers, a heavy briefcase or backpack, cat litter or dog food bags, a vacuum cleaner, or a child.
  • Avoid pulling yourself up using your arms. Do not use your arms to lift yourself into a high truck or sport utility vehicle (SUV).
  • Try to walk each day. Start by walking a little more than you did the day before. Bit by bit, increase the amount you walk. Walking boosts blood flow and helps prevent pneumonia and constipation. You can also use an indoor stationary bicycle, but take it easy.
  • Rest when you feel tired. Getting enough sleep will help you recover. Try to sleep on your back while your chest heals.
  • Hold a pillow over your incisions when you cough or take deep breaths. This will support your sternum and decrease your pain.
  • You can do easy chores around the house and yard, like washing dishes, folding clothes, or trimming flowers.
  • You can enjoy social activities, like going to the movies, church, and restaurants.
  • Ask your doctor when you can drive again.

For the next 3 months

  • You can keep doing the same activities you did during the first 3 months, especially walking.
  • You can return to work part-time if your doctor says it is okay and heavy lifting isn't part of your job.
  • You can do heavy housework (vacuuming, sweeping, laundry) and yard work (mowing the lawn, raking leaves).
  • You can travel for business or pleasure.
  • You can drive a car or small truck.

Getting out of and into a bed or chair

Using your arms to get out of and into a bed, chair, or couch can put pressure on your healing sternum. These instructions show you how to do these things safely.

Your nurse or doctor may have shown you a different way to do these things. If so, follow his or her instructions.

  • Getting out of bed:
    • Lie on your side, facing the direction you want to get out of the bed. Bend both knees.
    • Use your elbow to help raise your upper body as you lower your legs to the floor. Keep your elbow as close to your side as you can.
    • Scoot to the edge of the bed and position your feet under your buttocks.
    • Rest a moment, then stand up.
  • Getting into bed:
    • Stand with the back of your legs touching the bed.
    • Sit down on the edge of the bed.
    • Scoot your buttocks back onto the bed. Try not to use your arms.
    • Use your elbow to help you lie down on your side as you raise your legs up to the bed. Keep your elbow as close to your side as you can.
  • Getting up from a chair (or couch):
    • Scoot forward to the edge of the chair by pushing your shoulders against the back of the chair.
    • Bring your feet in toward the chair until your toes are right under your knees.
    • Lean forward until your nose is over your toes, then use your legs to stand up. If you need to, rock back and forth once or twice to help you stand up. Don't push or pull with your arms, but you can use them for balance.
  • Sitting down on a chair (or couch):
    • Stand with the back of your legs touching the chair.
    • Sit down without pushing or pulling with your arms or hands. You can use your arms and hands for balance.
    • Use your legs to push yourself back into a comfortable position on the chair.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

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