You had surgery to repair or replace one of your heart valves. Your surgery may have been done through a large incision (cut) in the middle of your chest, through a smaller cut between 2 of your ribs, or through 2 - 4 small cuts.
Most people spend 3 - 7 days in the hospital. You may have been in the intensive care unit some of the time, in the hospital, you may have begun learning exercises to help you recover more quickly.
What to Expect at Home
It will take 4-6 weeks to heal completely after surgery. During this time, it is normal to:
Have some pain in your chest around your incision
Have a poor appetite for 2-4 weeks
Have mood swings and feel depressed
Feel itchy, numb, or tingly around your incisions. This may last 6 months or more
Be constipated from pain medicines
Have mild trouble with short-term memory or feel confused or “fuzzy-headed”
Feel tired or have little energy
Have trouble sleeping. You should be sleeping normally within a few months.
Have some shortness of breath
Have weakness in your arms for the first month
The following are general recommendations. You may get specific directions from your surgical team. Be sure to follow the advice your doctor gives you.
Have a person who can help you stay in your home for at least the first 1-2 weeks.
Stay active during your recovery. Be sure to start slowly and increase your activity little by little.
Do not stand or sit in the same spot for too long. Move around a little bit.
Walking is a good exercise for the lungs and heart. Take it slowly at first.
Climb stairs carefully because balance may be a problem. Hold onto the railing. Rest part way up the stairs if you need to. Begin with someone walking with you.
It is okay to do light household chores, such as setting the table or folding clothes.
Stop your activity if you feel short of breath, dizzy, or have any pain in your chest.
Do not do any activity or exercise that causes pulling or pain across your chest, (such as using a rowing machine, twisting, or lifting weights.)
Do not drive for at least 4 - 6 weeks after your surgery. The twisting movements needed to turn the steering wheel may pull on your incision.
Expect to take 6 - 8 weeks off work. Ask your doctor when you may return to work.
Do not travel for at least 2 - 4 weeks. Ask your doctor when you can travel again.
Return to sexual activity gradually. Talk openly with your partner about it.
Most of the time, it is okay to start sexual activity after 4 weeks, or when you can easily climb 2 flights of stairs or walk a half-mile.
Keep in mind that anxiety, and some medicines, may change sexual response for both men and women.
Men should not use medicines for impotence (Viagra, Cialis, or Levitra) until their doctor says it is okay.
For the first 6 weeks after your surgery, you must be careful how you use your arms and upper body when you move.
Let anyone pull on your arms for any reason (such as helping you move around or get out of bed)
Lift anything heavier than 5-7 pounds for about 3 months
Do other activities that keep your arms above your shoulders
Do these things carefully:
Brushing your teeth
Getting out of bed or a chair. Keep your arms close to your sides when you use them to do this.
Bending forward to tie your shoes.
Stop any activity if you feel pulling on your incision or breastbone. Stop right away if you hear or feel any popping, moving, or shifting of your breastbone and call your surgeon's office.
Use mild soap and water to clean the area around your incision.
Wash your hands with soap and water.
Gently rub up and down on the skin with your hands or a very soft cloth.
Use a washcloth only when the scabs are gone and the skin has healed.
You may take showers, but only for 10 minutes at a time. Make sure the water is lukewarm. Do not use any creams, oils, or perfumed body washes. Apply dressings (bandages) the way your doctor or nurse showed you.
Do NOT swim, soak in a hot tub, or take baths until your incision is completely healed. Keep the incision dry.
Learn how to check your pulse, and check it every day. Do the breathing exercises you learned in the hospital for 4 to 6 weeks.
Follow a heart-healthy diet.
If you feel depressed, talk with your family and friends. Ask your doctor about getting help from a counselor.
Continue to take all your medicines for your heart, diabetes, high blood pressure, or any other conditions you have. Do not stop taking any medicine without talking with your doctor or nurse first.
You may need to take an antibiotic before any medical procedure or when you go to the dentist. Tell all of your health care providers (dentist, doctors, nurses, or nurse practitioners) about your heart problem. You may want to wear a medical alert bracelet or necklace.
Your doctor may ask you to take blood-thinning medicines to help keep your blood from forming clots. Your doctor might recommend one of these medicines:
Warfarin (Coumadin). If you are taking warfarin, you will need to have regular blood tests. You may be able to use a device to check your blood at home.
When to Call the Doctor
Call your doctor or nurse if:
You have chest pain or shortness of breath that does not go away when you rest.
You have pain in and around your incision that does not continue to get better at home.
Your pulse feels irregular -- it is very slow (fewer than 60 beats a minute) or very fast (over 100 to 120 beats a minute).
You have dizziness or fainting, or you are very tired.
You have a very bad headache that does not go away.
You have a cough that does not go away.
You have redness, swelling, or pain in your calf.
You are coughing up blood or yellow or green mucus.
You have problems taking any of your heart medicines.
Your weight goes up by more than 2 pounds in a day for 2 days in a row.
Your wound changes. It is red or swollen, it has opened, or there it has drainage coming from it.
You have chills or a fever over 101 °F.
If you are taking blood thinners, call your doctor if you have:
A serious fall, or you hit your head
Pain, discomfort, or swelling at an injection or injury site
A lot of bruising on your skin
A lot of bleeding, such as nosebleeds or bleeding gums
Bloody or dark brown urine or stool
Headache, dizziness, or weakness
An infection or fever, or an illness that is causing vomiting or diarrhea
You become pregnant or are planning to become pregnant
Bonow RO, Carabello BA, Chatterjee K, de Leon AC Jr., Faxon DP, Freed MD, et al; 2006 Writing Committee Members; American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force. 2008 Focused update incorporated into the ACC/AHA 2006 guidelines for the management of patiens with valvular heart disease: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines (Writing Committee to Revise the 1998 Guidelines for the Management of Patients with Valvular Heart Disease): endorsed by the Society of Cardiovascular Anesthesiologists, Society for Cardiovascular Angiography and Interventions, and Society of Thoracic Surgeons. Circulation. 2008;118:e523-e661.
Fullerton DA, Harken AH. Acquired heart disease: valvular. In: Townsend CM, Beauchamp RD, Evers BM, Mattox KL, eds. Sabiston Textbook of Surgery. 19th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2012:chap 61.
Michael A. Chen, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, Harborview Medical Center, University of Washington Medical School, Seattle, Washington Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.