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.

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
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Benefits of Surgery

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

Given the scope of open heart surgery and its inherently invasive nature, it’s helpful to know that it has a longstanding and high overall success rate correcting life-threatening problems and improving quality of life.

Beyond this, 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

Sustaining the benefits of open heart surgery involves lifelong dedication to certain lifestyle changes, each of which are described below.

Possible Future Surgeries

While open heart surgeries are largely successful, there are cases where they don’t work or treatment leads to other complications. Even those who have had successful operations may require additional treatment down the line.

Here’s a quick breakdown of what may follow:

  • Re-operation due to internal bleeding: There are rare cases of internal bleeding following surgery (post-surgical hemorrhage), something that is detected immediately afterward. This requires 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: Valve repair surgery may be required as a result of problems with stenosis (the valve not opening properly) or regurgitation (the valve being leaky). This can be performed via open-heart or less-invasive approaches.
  • Pacemaker implantation: Atrial fibrillation—irregular heartbeat—can follow open heart CABG surgery. In rare cases, this may call for implantation of an electronic pacemaker.
  • Heart transplant: A heart transplant may be considered if open heart surgery has not completely corrected the problem. It may also be done if heart disease or other conditions have continued to progress and other approaches aren’t expected to yield results.

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

Lifestyle Adjustments

As you recover, your healthcare provider is likely to recommend a guided cardiac rehabilitation program. You’ll work with professionals to strengthen your cardiovascular system through exercise and learn ways to adjust your lifestyle to manage your risk factors, including those discussed here. Your program will be tailored to your personalized needs.

Physical Activity

You may need to begin basic exercises before completing your cardiac rehabilitation program. The recommendations may vary with your specific condition, but among them might be:

  • Doing flexibility exercises, but not twisting your body when moving
  • Doing your breathing exercises daily
  • Walking twice a day for specific amounts of time

It's typically advised that you don't lift heavy objects, like weights, for at least six weeks.

After cardiac rehab, you'll need to keep following the recommendations given to you for life. Over the long term, routine exercise can help strengthen and maintain the strength of the heart, preventing further complications and preserving heart health.

Even something as simple as taking a daily half-hour walk can help a great deal, but you'll need to begin an exercise program under the continued supervision of your cardiologist.

Before you start, you will likely need to undergo an exercise tolerance test, also known as a stress test.


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 these fats make up only 5% to 6% of your total caloric intake.
  • Eat polyunsaturated fats. Generally considered healthier, polyunsaturated fats are found in nuts, fish, seeds, and oysters, among other foods. This type of fat should comprise only 10% of your daily caloric intake.
  • Eat monounsaturated fats. The healthiest of the three types of fat, monounsaturated fats are 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. Ideally, you should move toward a goal of no more than 1.5 grams a day.

Stress and Habits

Other steps to take include:

  • 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.
  • 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.

Ongoing Medical Care

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.

Throughout recovery and beyond, you may be prescribed various drugs to manage associated conditions. Stay consistent with medications. Be sure to follow instructions carefully and take the correct doses as prescribed.

Finally, make sure that you manage conditions that can impact your heart health, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes. The lifestyle changes you're putting into place can help with this. Your provider may also recommend medications for these issues.

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


Open heart surgery offers many benefits for people with significant cardiac conditions, including heart attack and coronary artery disease. A successful surgery, though, needs to be followed by a lifelong commitment to lifestyle changes that support heart health.

These steps toward maintaining health include changes in diet to reduce the fats, salt, and cholesterol you consume. Routine exercise also will help to strengthen your heart, lungs, and muscles.

Keep in mind that taking your medication as prescribed, along with routine healthcare appointments, will keep you on track after open heart surgery.

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 a well-worn path.

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 the effort.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Cedars Sinai Hospitals. Traditional heart surgery.

  3. American Society of Anesthesiologists. Heart surgery: types, risks, outcomes.

  4. Boston Medical Center. Exercise After Cardiac Surgery.

  5. Li Y, Feng X, Chen B, Liu H. Retrospective analysis of exercise capacity in patients with coronary artery disease after percutaneous coronary intervention or coronary artery bypass graft. Int J Nurs Sci. 2021 Jun 3;8(3):257-263. doi:10.1016/j.ijnss.2021.05.008.

  6. Society of Thoracic Surgeons. What to expect after heart surgery.

By Mark Gurarie
Mark Gurarie is a freelance writer, editor, and adjunct lecturer of writing composition at George Washington University.