Recovery after heart valve surgery
Recovery after valve surgery may take a long time. During this time, your activities will be limited, you will experience physical and emotional changes, and you may have problems (such as chest pain or trouble sleeping). You will also need medicines, good nutrition, and exercise.
After you return home from the hospital, you will spend weeks to months recovering from your surgery. Full recovery time varies for each person and is partially influenced by your age and overall physical condition. It also depends on your motivation to work with the doctor.
While you are recovering, you will have to limit many of your normal activities. On average, most people take 3 to 6 weeks off from work. But this will depend on your physical condition and the type of work you do. Talk to your doctor to find out when it is safe for you to return to work.
You will be advised not to drive for 3 to 6 weeks. Your body needs time to regain its normal coordination and agility and to allow your incision to heal.
To ensure proper healing, you should specifically avoid applying direct pressure to your surgical wound and lifting objects weighing more than 10 lb (4.5 kg) for at least 6 weeks.
Recovery can be intensely painful and difficult at times, due to both the operation and medicines you are given. You may have some discomfort such as pain, swelling, or fatigue.
You may experience bouts of depression. Some people experience depression as a natural result of recovery from invasive surgery, which is a traumatic and weakening physical experience. Other people become depressed because they may feel isolated or inactive during recovery.
Although it may be difficult, remember that these sensations and feelings are all normal reactions and are part of your physical and emotional healing process. They should disappear over time. If any of them concern you or especially cause you discomfort, discuss them with your doctor.
What you need to watch for
Some physical symptoms may indicate complications such as an infection. The table below notes symptoms to be aware of and what they may mean. Notify your doctor immediately if you experience any of them.
A fever especially during the first few days after you return home
Excessive draining, redness, or swelling of the incision
Sudden weight gain in the first two days
Swelling in ankles and hands
|Fluid retention, which could indicate a problem with your circulation|
|Increasingly severe shortness of breath or coughing||Problems with your heart or valve function or fluid retention|
|Excessive fatigue, weakness, dizziness, or fainting||Problems with blood circulation and oxygen supply to your body parts or arrhythmia|
What you need to do
Even though you have been discharged from the hospital, you still need to visit your doctor regularly for follow-up visits. He or she will monitor your condition, discuss any limitations on activities or diet, and prescribe medicines. Be sure you let your doctor know about any additional medicines (such as nonprescription painkillers) that you may take, as these medicines may interact with the ones your doctor has already prescribed.
The following are some considerations your doctor may discuss with you.
- Medicines. When blood comes into contact with a foreign object, such as an artificial valve, its initial response is to form clots, which can lead to stroke. After your surgery, you will need to take anticoagulants (medicine that keeps your blood from clotting). If you have a mechanical heart valve (made from plastic, metal, or cloth, instead of from animal or human tissue), you will need to take anticoagulants for the rest of your life, as your blood may continually clot in response to the materials in your artificial heart valve. If you have a biological heart valve (made from animal or human tissue), you may need to take anticoagulants for at least the first few weeks after surgery.
- Diet during recovery. In order to alleviate constipation caused by painkillers, you should eat a diet rich in fruit and fiber. In general, while your body heals, you should eat a diet rich in vitamins and nutrients.
- Physical activity/exercise. Your doctor will recommend that you follow a routine of regular exercise. To help you develop such a routine, you may need to work with a physical therapist or go to a cardiac rehabilitation program, where trained professionals will help you develop a regimen that does not harm you while giving you the minimum workout that you need. Keep in mind that exercise at this time does not need to be strenuous. Even a regular walking routine can be very helpful. You should gradually increase the amount and intensity of any physical activity you do, taking care not to strain yourself. Also, try to take 10 to 20 deep breaths every 2 to 4 hours while you are awake, as this will help keep your lungs clear.
- Sleep. It is important to establish a normal sleeping pattern. Try to avoid naps and do not take sleeping pills unless it is absolutely necessary.
- Hygiene. You need to wash your surgical incisions daily with soap and water, which you can do while you shower. Immediately report to your doctor any signs of infection, such as swelling or redness.
- Smoking. It is very important that you do not smoke while you are recovering from heart surgery. If you think you will have difficulty with this, ask your doctor for information on smoking cessation programs.