Heart Valve Surgery: Recovery

Topic Overview

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.

Recovery

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 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. Most people take a few 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 may be advised not to drive for a few weeks. Your body needs time to regain its normal coordination and agility and to allow your incision to heal.

To ensure proper healing, do not apply direct pressure to your surgical wound. For at least 6 weeks, avoid lifting anything that would make you strain. This may include a child, heavy grocery bags and milk containers, a heavy briefcase or backpack, or cat litter or dog food bags.

Recovery can be intensely painful and difficult at times, from both the operation and medicines you are given. You may have some discomfort such as pain, swelling, or fatigue.

If you have symptoms of depression, talk to your doctor. Treating depression can help you stay healthy. 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 hard, 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 lists symptoms to be aware of and what they may mean. Call your doctor immediately if you have any of these symptoms.

Possible symptoms after valve surgery

Symptom

Could mean

A fever, especially during the first few days after you return home

Excessive draining, redness, or swelling of the incision

Infection

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 watch your condition, discuss any limitations on activities or diet, and prescribe medicines. Be sure you let your doctor know about any other medicines (such as nonprescription painkillers) that you take, as these medicines may interact with the ones your doctor has already prescribed.

The following are some things your doctor may discuss with you.

  • Anticoagulant medicine after surgery. You will need to take anticoagulants for a few weeks after surgery to prevent dangerous blood clots that might happen while you recover. If your new valve is a mechanical heart valve, 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 your new valve is 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 will need to eat a diet rich in fruit and fiber. In general, while your body heals, eating foods rich in vitamins and nutrients is best.
  • 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 design a regimen that does not harm you but gives 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. This will help keep your lungs clear.
  • Sleep. It is important to set a normal sleeping pattern. Try to avoid naps and do not take sleeping pills unless it is absolutely necessary to do so.
  • Hygiene. You need to wash your surgical incisions daily with soap and water. You can do this 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.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Rakesh K. Pai, MD, FACC - Cardiology, Electrophysiology
Specialist Medical Reviewer John A. McPherson, MD, FACC, FSCAI - Cardiology
Last Revised November 29, 2011

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