Recovery at Home

These guidelines will assist you during your recovery at home after open-heart surgery.

After open-heart surgery, it’s important to have someone stay with you the first week you’re home from the hospital — whether it’s a family member or you arrange home healthcare. Your activities will be limited — for example, you can’t lift anything over 10 pounds or drive until four weeks after surgery — so it’s important to plan accordingly.

Our care coordination team can help you prepare and provide information about local resources. In addition, we strongly recommend you participate in our Cardiac Rehabilitation Program, an outpatient program that helps you regain strength and lowers your heart disease risk factors.

Instructions from Your Care Team

Your heart care team will provide you with detailed information about:

  • How to care for yourself at home, including instructions for taking medicines and managing pain.
  • What you should do each day, and how and when you can resume regular activities.
  • What to eat and drink, and what to avoid.
  • How to manage temporary physical changes, such as constipation, difficulty sleeping, and emotional ups and downs.

Most people return to a full-time work schedule within two months of surgery.

Follow-up Appointments

A cardiac surgery nurse will call you two days after you leave the hospital to check on your progress and answer questions. At that time, you’ll schedule a:

  • Follow-up exam – With a nurse practitioner or physicians assistant (seven to 10 days after discharge). You’ll need to have your blood drawn and a chest X-ray (if necessary) before this appointment.
  • One-month checkup – With a heart surgery nurse.


You can shower and wash your hair as soon as you’d like, but someone should be nearby during the first few times in case you need help. You should:

  • Use gentle soap and water to clean your incisions. Wash your incisions first, then wash the rest of your body. After your shower, pat your incisions dry gently.
  • Shower with warm water, rather than hot, for the first few weeks.
  • Put a small, stable chair or stool in the shower in case you feel weak or dizzy, but make sure it doesn’t prevent you from moving around safely.
  • Avoid taking a bath, soaking in a hot tub, or swimming in a pool for a month after surgery.

Incision Care

It’s important to keep your incisions clean and dry, and you should check them every day:

  • Don’t apply lotions, creams or ointments to your incisions unless your surgeon tells you otherwise.
  • Check incisions daily for redness, swelling or oozing (plumpness at the top of the incision is normal and will disappear in a few months). If you notice any of these symptoms, call your surgeon immediately. Don’t wait for your follow-up appointment.
  • Incisions may feel numb to the touch, which is normal and only temporary.
  • Wear clothes that protect your incisions from the sun. Wounds sunburn easily, which can cause more pronounced scarring.
  • If you have an incision on your leg, elevate your leg at heart level or higher when you sit or lie down to minimize swelling. Swelling can cause tension on the incisions and slow healing, though some swelling is normal and is temporary.
  • An occasional clicking or rubbing feeling in your breastbone is normal, particularly the first week. Reduce your upper-body movement to prevent it. If it doesn’t go away after a few weeks or it happens frequently, call your surgeon.
  • If you have diabetes, which affects blood circulation, it may take longer to heal and you have a greater risk of developing an infection. It’s very important to manage your blood sugar levels (discuss this with your diabetes care provider) and be vigilant about caring for your incisions.
  • Women should wear a supportive bra without underwire to minimize pulling on incisions. You can add extra padding to protect incisions.

Upper Body Movement

During open-heart surgery, your breastbone (sternum) is divided down the middle and wired back together with stainless steel wire, which will remain permanently. The wire won’t rust, dissolve or set off metal detectors. It takes eight weeks for your breastbone to heal fully, but it may take longer if you’re diabetic.

Take these precautions to reduce pain and improve healing:

  • Lifting, pushing and pulling. Don’t lift, push or pull more than 10 pounds (a gallon of milk is 8.4 pounds) for the first four weeks after surgery. You can do light housework, but don’t vacuum, mow the lawn, or do yard work.
  • Getting up from a chair or bed. Don’t push up or pull with your arms when you get up. Have someone help you, or roll on your side and push off with your elbow to get out of bed.
  • Using the computer. It’s fine to use a computer, but keep your shoulders relaxed, your elbows low, and the keyboard close to you to avoid shoulder strain.
  • Driving. Don’t drive for four weeks after surgery. Your breastbone isn’t stable enough to handle the demands of driving, even with power steering. And, pain, fatigue and medicine can slow your reaction time. You can ride as a passenger, but wear your seatbelt and don’t disable airbags.
  • Canes and walkers. Assistive devices should be used for balance only. Don’t lean on them with your full weight until your breastbone has healed completely (usually two months).
  • Sleeping. We recommend you sleep on your back the first week or two after surgery to allow your breastbone to heal better.

When to Call Your Doctor

If you experience any of the following symptoms, call your surgeon right away:

  • A fever higher than 101 F/38.3 C, or chills and shaking.
  • Wound separation (rupture along an incision).
  • Redness that extends more than an inch from the edge of an incision.
  • Increased skin temperature, swelling, tightness or pain around an incision.
  • Change in wound drainage, such as a sudden increase; a large amount of clear or pinkish drainage; or white, yellow or green drainage.
  • Tenderness in your calf (lower leg).
  • Extreme fatigue that doesn’t go away.
  • Frequent grinding, popping or clicking in your breastbone.
  • One or both legs become cool, pale, numb or painful, especially if symptoms come on suddenly.
  • A fast or irregular heartbeat.
  • Shortness of breath or feeling winded while resting or during minimal exertion.
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness.
  • Weight gain of more than 2 pounds overnight or more than 5 pounds in a week.
  • Increased swelling in your legs.