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Heart Defect Repair Surgery: What to Expect at Home

Your Recovery

Your doctor repaired your heart defect through a cut, called an incision, in your chest.

You will feel tired and sore for the first few weeks after surgery. You may have some brief, sharp pains on either side of your chest. Your chest, shoulders, and upper back may ache. The incision in your chest may be sore or swollen. These symptoms usually get better after 4 to 6 weeks.

You may be able to do many of your usual activities after 4 to 6 weeks. But for at least 6 weeks, avoid lifting heavy objects or doing activities that strain your chest or upper arm muscles.

Some people feel sad or more emotional after this surgery. This can last for up to a year. Talk with your doctor if your sadness continues or you have concerns about how you are feeling. Treatment and other support can help you feel better.

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?

Activity

  • Rest when you feel tired. Getting enough sleep will help you recover. Try to sleep on your back while you heal. If your breastbone (sternum) was cut, healing usually takes about 4 to 6 weeks.
  • 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.
  • Avoid strenuous activities, such as bicycle riding, jogging, weight lifting, or aerobic exercise, until your doctor says it is okay.
  • For 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.
  • For at least 6 weeks, avoid lifting anything that would make you strain. This may include a child, heavy grocery bags and milk containers, a heavy briefcase or backpack, or cat litter or dog food bags.
  • For at least 6 weeks, avoid pushing yourself up out of a bed or chair using your arms. Do not use your arms to pull yourself into or out of a vehicle.
  • Hold a pillow over your incision when you cough or take deep breaths. This will support your chest and decrease your pain.
  • Do breathing exercises at home as instructed by your doctor. This will help prevent pneumonia.
  • Ask your doctor when you can drive again.
  • You may need to take 4 to 12 weeks off from work. It depends on the type of work you do and how you feel.
  • Ask your doctor when it is okay for you to have sex.

Diet

  • Eat a heart-healthy diet. If you have not been eating this way, talk to your doctor. You also may want to talk to a dietitian. A dietitian can help you plan meals and learn about healthy foods.
  • Drink plenty of fluids (unless your doctor tells you not to).
  • You may notice that your bowel movements are not regular right after your surgery. This is common. Try to avoid constipation and straining with bowel movements. You may want to take a fibre supplement every day. If you have not had a bowel movement after a couple of days, ask your doctor about taking a mild laxative.

Medicines

  • Your doctor will tell you if and when you can restart your medicines. You will also be given instructions about taking any new medicines.
  • If you take aspirin or some other blood thinner, ask your doctor if and when to start taking it again. Make sure that you understand exactly what your doctor wants you to do.
  • Be safe with medicines. Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor or nurse call line if you think you are having a problem with your medicine.
  • Take pain medicines exactly as directed.
    • If the doctor gave you a prescription medicine for pain, take it as prescribed.
    • If you are not taking a prescription pain medicine, ask your doctor if you can take an over-the-counter medicine.
    • Do not take two or more pain medicines at the same time unless the doctor told you to. Many pain medicines have acetaminophen, which is Tylenol. Too much acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be harmful.
  • If you think your pain medicine is making you sick to your stomach:
    • Take your medicine after meals (unless your doctor has told you not to).
    • Ask your doctor for a different pain medicine.
  • If your doctor prescribed antibiotics, take them as directed. Do not stop taking them just because you feel better. You need to take the full course of antibiotics.
  • If you take a blood thinner, be sure to get instructions about how to take this medicine safely. Blood thinners can cause serious bleeding problems.

Incision care

  • If you have strips of tape on the incision, leave the tape on for a week or until it falls off.
  • Wash the area daily with warm, soapy water, and pat it dry. Other cleaning products, such as hydrogen peroxide, can make the wound heal more slowly. You may cover the area with a gauze bandage if it weeps or rubs against clothing. Change the bandage every day.
  • You can take showers with your back to the shower head. Allow the warm and soapy water to run across your shoulders and down over the incision. Pat the incision dry with a clean towel.
  • Do not take a bath for the first 3 weeks, or until your doctor tells you it is okay.
  • Do not swim or use a hot tub for at least 1 month, or until your doctor says it is okay.
  • Do not use any creams, lotions, powders, ointments, or oils unless your doctor tells you it is okay.

Other instructions

  • Keep track of your weight. Weigh yourself every day at the same time of day, on the same scale, in the same amount of clothing. A sudden increase in weight can be a sign of a problem with your heart. Tell your doctor if you suddenly gain weight, such as 1 to 1.3 kilograms (2 to 3 pounds) or more in 2 to 3 days.
  • Be sure to tell all your doctors and your dentist that you have had this repair surgery. This is important, because you may need to take antibiotics before certain procedures to prevent infection.

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 advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) 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.

When should you call for help?

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You passed out (lost consciousness).
  • You have severe trouble breathing.
  • You have severe pain in your chest.
  • You have sudden chest pain and shortness of breath, or you cough up blood.
  • You have symptoms of a stroke. These may include:
    • Sudden numbness, tingling, weakness, or loss of movement in your face, arm, or leg, especially on only one side of your body.
    • Sudden vision changes.
    • Sudden trouble speaking.
    • Sudden confusion or trouble understanding simple statements.
    • Sudden problems with walking or balance.
    • A sudden, severe headache that is different from past headaches.
  • You have symptoms of a heart attack. These may include:
    • Chest pain or pressure, or a strange feeling in the chest.
    • Sweating.
    • Shortness of breath.
    • Nausea or vomiting.
    • Pain, pressure, or a strange feeling in the back, neck, jaw, or upper belly or in one or both shoulders or arms.
    • Light-headedness or sudden weakness.
    • A fast or irregular heartbeat.

Call your doctor or nurse call line now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have pain that does not get better after you take pain medicine.
  • You have loose stitches, or your incision comes open.
  • You are bleeding a lot from the incision.
  • You have signs of infection, such as:
    • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness.
    • Red streaks leading from the incision.
    • Pus draining from the incision.
    • A fever.
  • Your heartbeat feels very fast, skips beats, or flutters.
  • You have signs of a blood clot, such as:
    • Pain in your calf, back of the knee, thigh, or groin.
    • Redness and swelling in your leg or groin.
  • You have symptoms of heart failure, such as:
    • Swelling in your legs, ankles, or feet.
    • Sudden weight gain, such as more than 1 to 1.3 kilograms (2 to 3 pounds) in a day or 2.5 kilograms (5 pounds) in a week. (Your doctor may suggest a different range of weight gain.)
  • You are sick to your stomach or cannot keep fluids down.

Watch closely for any changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor or nurse call line if:

  • You do not get better as expected.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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Care instructions adapted under license by your healthcare professional. If you have questions about a medical condition or this instruction, always ask your healthcare professional. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.