By Angela Hartley on 12 November 2021
Recovery from heart surgery - 5 tips to get through the first 12 weeks
If you’ve had open heart surgery like a CABG or valve surgery and have just got home you may feel like you’ve bee hit by a bus - I wanted to put together my top 5 tips for getting through those first 12 weeks and recovering as quickly and best as you can to get you through this tough and overwhelming period. Recovering from bypass or valve surgery is different for everyone, but if you can incorporate some of these tips into those early days then it will help set you up for a good recovery.
Tip 1: Sleep like a baby
And unfortunately, I don’t mean with that lovely baby smooth skin and those tiny little snuggles dreaming away all day. I mean - they sleep little and often and all over the place. Treat your heart surgery like becoming a newborn baby again - sleep for an hour here and there, whenever you need to. Especially in the first few days, you’ll feel exhausted from the constant wake ups in hospital and the discomfort. So head for a nap whenever you need it. Over the first 4 weeks, if you can catch a few hours here and there, that is a great result. If you’re up in the night, don’t lie there in pain, get up and watch some tv, you can nap tomorrow to make up for it. Gradually start to pull all of your sleep times together, just as you would a baby. Over the first 6 weeks build up to several hours in bed at night.
Top tip from fellow Hearties: sleep in a recliner chair (like a Lazy-boy like this one) or with several pillows propping you up. You won’t be able to sleep on your side for around 10-12 weeks so make a little pillow haven for yourself to get as comfortable as you can. A pregnancy pillow like this one may help too.
Tip 2: Pain relief is your friend (and you won’t need it forever)
Don’t skimp on the pain relief - it will help you get more rest and recover quicker. Most people after heart surgery go home on just Paracetemol (acetaminophen in the US) 4 times a day - I know, seems like such a small amount for such a huge surgery. If you do feel like this is not enough and you are really suffering, please ask for more pain relief from the hospital or the GP. Whilst they give you plenty of stronger pain relief in hospital, most people after open heart surgery do surprisingly well on just the paracetamol. You can start to gradually cut it down as the weeks go by. Don’t be tempted to ‘tough it out’ too soon. If your pain is over a 3-4 out of 10, take your usual pain relief dose. If you miss it, your pain will likely creep up to a 6-7 out of 10 which is then much harder to get on top of. Other things than can help with pain are sleep (see above), not overdoing it too soon (see tip 3 below) and deep breathing. By calming your central nervous system by taking 5-6 long, deep breaths (or short deep breaths if it hurts too much - see tip 4 below for tips on deep breathing!), you will calm down your body’s response to the pain.
Top tip from Headspace, a highly recommended meditation app: The purpose of meditation for pain management, and the techniques used, is that it teaches you to adopt a curious mind to explore and investigate the pain. The first thing most of us do with pain is push it away, wanting it to end, resisting the feeling — and it’s that resistance that can often exacerbate our pain or discomfort. Meditation shows us how to step back and perhaps begin to unwind the pain, no matter whether it’s something long-standing and chronic, or something mild that’s niggled you for a short period of time. Definitely worth a try especially during this huge change in your life.
Tip 3: Don’t do nothing, but don’t do too much!
Possibly the vaguest advice ever I’m afraid! But it’s important you don’t lay in bed for hours then sit on the couch for hours. You must give yourself some sort of target each day and try to stick to a routine. Every day will be different of course - some days you’ll feel like doing a lot, some days you’ll feel exhausted and need to rest more.
Also, everyone is in a different place in their recovery so I can’t say how much to do specifically, but find out what’s achievable for you and stick to it. It may be just having a shower and making your own cup of tea. That may be enough to exhaust you for the first week. Then it may be a 5 minute walk once or twice a day. Slowly building up what you are doing is important. You’ll be able to see the progress and this will give you a great mental boost. Also your body loves movement so it’s important to get your muscles and joints moving as early as possible. On average, I ask people to add around 5 minutes to their daily walk every week. Eg Week one, aim for a 5 minute walk once or twice a day. Week 2, a 10 minute walk once or twice a day. And so on.
That being said, don’t give yourself tough targets and deadlines that may lead to exhaustion. It’s important to rest and make sure you body conserves energy for healing your wounds on the outside AND the inside so remember that it’s a slow marathon, not a sprint. You’ll be amazed at how much better you feel each week, especially as you start to get more sleep.
Tip 4: Eat top quality, little and often
Many people lose their appetite after surgery so it often takes several weeks to get back to a normal healthy eating routine. You may feel motivated to eat healthy but simply don’t feel like it. It’s also possible your taste buds will have altered and you may not like the taste of your old favourites. Don’t panic! This is just a phase and you will get through this.
Try to eat little bits of the things you can stomach, every few hours. So if it’s a piece of toast and a cup of tea, aim to have a slice every few hours for the first week. Do try to get in as many top quality nutrients as you can, especially as your body is going to be using a huge amount of energy repairing your wounds (inside and out), clearing out the anaesthetic and other strong medications and recovering from the exhaustion that comes with several sleepless nights in hospital. You could try a smoothie with some veggies thrown in (spinach plus milk plus banana plus chocolate powder works well and you can’t taste the spinach). Soups are a great idea and you can get lots of veggies into them and blend them up so it’s easier to digest.
As the weeks go on, don’t fall back into bad habits of takeaways, huge portions and processed foods. Take this time to think about what your body really needs to work at it’s best and try to come up with ways of getting that top quality fuel into your body.
Top tip: Get a good quality multivitamin like this one from Feel if you aren’t eating a good diet for the first few weeks. Check with your doctor or pharmacist to see if it’s ok to take with your medications.
Top tip from fellow Hearties: Get visitors to bring homemade healthy food - you then don’t have to spend time cooking when you have little energy. You can freeze some portions for when your appetite comes back. And it’s way more useful than flowers!
Tip 5: Keep a diary and remember ‘This too shall pass’
Ok so this is two tips but I couldn’t stick to just 5! I think it’s so important to remember that recovering from a major surgery is not just physical, but emotional too. Your body has been through a trauma and it may take several months (or years) to process that. Some people seem to bounce back quicker mentally than others but try not to compare your journey. Keeping a diary helps you to remember things as they happened, and works as a really great tool to look back and realise just how far you’ve come. Write down small things like ‘today was better, I walked up the stairs’. And how you’re feeling about everything. Overwhelmed, scared, worried, annoyed, frustrated, exhausted. Add new words each week and watch them change for the positive.
And remember ‘This too shall pass’. Before you know it, you will be 6 weeks post op and feeling a little bit more ‘ok’. And then 12 weeks and you’ll feel a bit better, you’ll sleep a bit better and feel less exhausted. And then 12 months will pass and those new arteries will be giving you a whole new lease on life.
Top tip: Get a really good looking notebook to write in like this one to get you writing.
I'm Angela Hartley, Cardiac Nurse and Exercise Coach and I'm here to help you get fitter, stronger and get your mojo back.
No matter how unfit you are or what heart condition you have, we can help! As part of the programmes on offer you will feel part of a community, be able to use a range of tools to keep you motivated and have access to a members area on the website where you can interact with others, learn more about your heart condition and track your progress.