Open Heart Surgery: Long-Term Care

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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 your recovery period after the operation.

This article will help you understand the benefits of open heart surgery and possible follow-up surgeries, as well as lifestyle changes your doctor is likely to recommend as you recover.

Surgeon talking with senior woman in hospital hallway - stock photo
 Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

Benefits of Surgery

Given the scope of open heart surgery and its inherently invasive nature, it’s helpful to know that this surgery has a longstanding history of successful outcomes.

Open heart surgery involves accessing the heart via the breastbone. The surgery can be aided by placing your heart on a heart-lung machine during the operation (called "on-pump"), though it may not always involve one (called "off-pump" surgery).

Surgeons use open heart surgery for conditions such as heart attack, heart failure, valve disease, and coronary artery disease. It’s the most common method for performing coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG).

The surgery has a high overall success rate in correcting problems and improving quality of life. Beyond correcting life-threatening heart problems, open heart surgeries offer 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, lifestyle and dietary changes also help 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, stent placement (placing structures in the vessels that help keep them unblocked and open), and others. 
  • Valve repair surgery: In cases where tissues surrounding the heart valves have started bleeding after surgery, a specialized valve repair surgery will be indicated. This can be performed via open heart or less-invasive approaches. Valve repair surgery may also be required as a result of problems with stenosis (the valve not opening properly) or regurgitation (the valve being leaky).
  • Pacemaker implantation: In a significant number of cases, atrial fibrillation—irregular heartbeat—can follow open heart CABG surgery. This may in rare cases call for an electronic pacemaker to be implanted.
  • 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—a heart transplant may be considered.

Throughout your recovery, be mindful of how you’re feeling. Don’t hesitate to let medical professionals know if anything seems off. 

Open heart surgery is a significant procedure, but it has a long history of success in improving heart health and quality of life. Long-term recovery involves making changes to diet and caring for the heart through exercise and other measures, such as reducing stress and seeing your doctor regularly.

Lifestyle Adjustments

Over the long term, lifestyle changes will help prevent further complications and preserve heart health. To start, changing your diet can bring major health benefits. Follow these tips:

  • Avoid 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.
  • Eat 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.
  • Eat monounsaturated fats. The healthiest of the three types of fat, monounsaturated fats are present in avocados, olive oil, and some nuts. This type should be emphasized and account for 15% to 20% of the calories you consume.
  • Reduce cholesterol intake. Cholesterol is present in a number of foods, including red meat, eggs, shellfish, sardines, and organ meats, among others. It should be limited to no more than 300 milligrams (mg) a day.
  • Reduce sodium (salt) intake. Because of its potential effect on blood pressure, salt intake shouldn’t exceed 2.3 grams (g) a day—and, ideally, shouldn't be more than 1.5 grams a day.

Another long-term priority following open heart surgery will be strengthening the heart. As you recover, your doctor is likely to recommend a guided cardiac rehabilitation program, in which you’ll work with professionals and learn about how to maintain your heart health. Other steps to take 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.
  • Managing high cholesterol. Following a diet low in cholesterol and boosting physical activity can help reduce cholesterol levels.
  • Managing 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 regular exercise will help.
  • Maintaining 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.
  • Controlling stress. Stress, anger, and other emotional reactions are common following surgery and can hinder your rehabilitation. Regular exercise and meditation can help you regulate your emotions while reducing stress. 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 see your health care team for a number of follow-up appointments. This is an essential component of recovery, so make sure to stay consistent with these.

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

A Word from Verywell

The road to complete recovery from open heart surgery 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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