A patient's life tends to change greatly in the period of time soon after heart surgery. There will usually be follow-up appointments, pain management plans and specific medications to attend to that will be personalized to the patient. Individuals should take certain precautions for caring for their incisions and monitor effects on their sleep patterns. In the long term, patients often benefit from steady psychological support after heart surgery, as the process can be emotionally debilitating for many. Long-term lifestyle changes, involving areas such as one's natural diet and exercise habits, can be necessary to prevent heart disease from happening again in the future.
Most patients will experience moderate, but easily provoked, pain or discomfort in their chests, usually due to the healing process of the sternum. This pain will generally stay until the chest bone is healed. Pain may also arise in other areas of the body, such as around the incision site, in the throat from the breathing tube, or in any areas where an artery may have been removed.
Pills or suppositories are the most common form of painkillers during this stage, although they may also be administered through an intravenous tube even outside the hospital. Doctors will help the patient construct a personalized pain management plan, usually involving the patient's own rating of the intensity of their pain. Keeping hydrated during this time is important, as some pain medications may cause constipation.
Most patients will need standard follow-up appointments at least several times after heart surgery. Normally, the first will occur one to two weeks post-surgery in order to check the status of the incisions, heart and lungs. If there are no complications, the next follow-up appointment is usually six to eight weeks after the surgery. The doctor will inform the patient on how well he or she is healing and provide personalized information about returning to normal, daily activities such as work or exercise.
In order not to interfere with the healing process, incisions must be taken care of properly for the first six months after heart surgery. Those who will be in cars soon after surgery should stop every hour in order to walk and revive their circulation, and some sort of padding or cushioning should be placed between the seatbelt and the incision. Showers are appropriate, and incisions should be washed gently every day with warm water, though hot tubs or baths may hurt the healing process. Patients should discuss any discomfort, numbness or signs of possible incision infection with a physician.
Sleep disturbances are more common during the first several weeks after heart surgery, but usually subside afterward. Frequent breaks as opposed to daytime naps are recommended, as it is important for patients to return to normal sleep patterns as soon as possible. Some patients may suffer from night sweats, which, unless accompanied by fever, are usually not treatable physically. Emotional comfort and support during this time usually aid greatly in preventing insomnia or nightmares.
Directly after heart surgery, patients should not lift anything heavier than 5 to 10 lbs. (11 to 22 kg) because of the delicacy of the sternum and avoid any strenuous activity involving the arms. Light, everyday motions are usually harmless, but more involved activities such as exercising, driving or traveling should be avoided for at least several weeks. Each patient's doctor will advise them personally on when it is safe to return to their particular everyday activities.
Psychological support is vital for most patients before and after heart surgery. Many patients suffer anxiety pre-surgery, and most patients experience some sort of psychological effect post-surgery, including depression or hopelessness, but also in some cases, an interruption in verbal or writing skills. While most patients physically recover successfully from heart surgery, emotional support or counseling can greatly expedite the healing process.