Open Heart Surgery: Long-Term Care

In This Article

Rehabilitation and recovery from open heart surgery is an extensive process. Initial recovery takes a minimum of six weeks, and successful outcomes hinge in part on longer-term changes in lifestyle and diet. If open heart surgery has been indicated for you, it’s essential that you learn as much as possible about the time after the operation.

Surgeon talking with senior woman in hospital hallway - stock photo
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Benefits of Surgery

Given the scope of open heart surgery and its inherently invasive nature, it’s good to know that this is both a longstanding and a very widely used approach. Open heart surgery involves accessing the heart via the breastbone and placing it on a heart-lung machine during the operation.

Surgeons use open heart surgery for conditions such as heart attack, heart failure, coronary artery disease (CAD), and atrial fibrillation (AFib). It’s the most common method for performing coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG) surgery. No doubt, this is because of the surgery’s overall success rate in correcting problems and improving the quality of life of patients.

In terms of benefits, a good deal depends on the specific treatment involved as well as the individual case. Beyond correcting life-threatening heart problems, open heart surgeries offer up a number of other positive effects, including:

  • Reduction in chest pain
  • Improved breathing function
  • Healthier blood oxygen levels in the bloodstream
  • Reduced risk of stroke or complications in blood vessels
  • Improved quality of life

As you’ll see below, some lifestyle and dietary changes will need to be made to ensure positive outcomes.

Possible Future Surgeries

While open heart surgeries are largely successful in correcting problems, there are cases where they don’t work or treatment leads to other complications. Even those who’ve had successful operations may require additional treatment down the line. What sort of work may be done? Here’s a quick breakdown:

  • Re-operation due to internal bleeding: In rare cases, there’s internal bleeding following surgery (post-surgical hemorrhage), something which is detected immediately following surgery. This necessitates a reopening of the surgical site and procedures to correct the problem.
  • Minimally-invasive heart treatments: Cardiac problems can recur. Options include minimally-invasive heart surgery, transmyocardial laser revascularization (using lasers to correct angina), stent placement (placing structures in the vessels that help keep them unblocked and open), and others. 
  • Valve repair surgery: In cases where valves in the heart that were operated upon have started bleeding, a specialized valve repair surgery will be indicated. This can be performed via open heart or less-invasive approaches.
  • Pacemaker implantation: In a significant number of cases, atrial fibrillation—irregular heartbeat—can follow open heart CABG surgery. This may call for an electronic pacemaker to be implanted on the heart.
  • Heart transplant: If open heart surgery has not completely corrected the problem, or if heart disease or other conditions have continued to progress—and other approaches aren’t expected to yield results—heart transplant may also be considered.

Throughout the course of recovery, be mindful of how you’re feeling, and don’t hesitate to let medical professionals know if anything seems off. 

Lifestyle Adjustments

Over the long term, you’ll likely have to make some lifestyle changes to prevent further complications and to preserve heart health. In terms of diet, here are some tips:

  • Saturated fats: Known as the “unhealthy” kind of fat, there are higher levels of saturated fats in foods like red meat, palm oil, cheese, and butter. It’s recommended that intake be only 5% to 6% of total caloric intake.
  • Polyunsaturated fats: Generally considered healthier, this type of fat is found in nuts, fish, seeds, and oysters, among other foods. This type of fat should comprise only 10% of daily intake.
  • Monounsaturated fats: The healthiest of the three types of fat, monounsaturated fats are present in avocados, olive oils, and some nuts. This type should be emphasized and account for 15% to 20% of the calories you consume.
  • Cholesterol: This important lipid is present in a number of foods, including red meat, eggs, shellfish, sardines, and organ meats among others. This should be limited to no more than 300 milligrams (mg) a day.
  • Sodium (salt): Because of its potential effect on blood pressure, salt intake shouldn’t exceed 2.3 grams (g) a day.

Another priority over the long-term following open heart surgery, is strengthening the heart by making lifestyle changes. In the earlier going, you’ll likely undertake a guided cardiac rehabilitation program, in which you’ll work with professionals and learn about how to maintain health. These include:

  • Quitting smoking: Tobacco smoking can complicate recovery and has an overall very negative impact on health. If quitting is challenging, it’s worth looking into medical help or other options.
  • Manage high cholesterol: Emphasizing a diet low in cholesterol and boosting activity can help reduce cholesterol levels.
  • Manage high blood pressure and diabetes: These health conditions can also severely impact heart health. As with cholesterol, a diet emphasizing fresh whole foods, as well as a regular exercise regimen can help.
  • Maintain physical fitness: Ensuring that you’re getting enough exercise is crucial for heart health. Even something as simple as taking a daily, half-hour walk can help a great deal.
  • Control stress: Stress, anger, and other emotional reactions are common following surgery and can hinder your rehabilitation. Regular exercise and meditation, for instance, can certainly help. If you’re struggling, consider seeking out individual or group therapy.
  • Stay consistent with medications: Throughout recovery and beyond, you may be prescribed various drugs to manage associated conditions. Be sure to follow instructions carefully and stay on top of your doses.
  • Follow-up appointments: In the weeks and months following open heart surgery, you’ll need to come back in for a number of follow-up appointments. This is an essential component of recovery, so make sure to stay consistent with these.

A Word from Verywell

Despite its overall success and long-term use, open heart surgery can be an intimidating and frightening prospect. However, the benefits certainly outweigh risks, and, in many cases, this approach is quite-literally a lifesaver.

The road to complete recovery is long—and, as noted, longstanding changes to lifestyle need to be made—but it’s also well-worn. Every day, thousands of heart surgeries are performed successfully, and every day thousands more post-operative patients are finding a new lease on life. Your heart is worth fighting for.

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Article Sources
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  5. Cleveland Clinic. Coronary artery bypass surgery recovery and outlook. 2019.