Recovering After a Heart Valve Repair or Replacement Procedure
Recovering from heart surgery is a complex process. While surgery may immediately alleviate some of your heart-valve-disease symptoms, you will need some time to feel back to normal and to return to your usual routine. Give yourself time to heal, and work with your doctor to follow the best path to better health.
When you are discharged from the hospital, you will not feel fully recovered. Once you leave the hospital, it will typically take six to eight weeks before you are able to return to your normal routine. Every patient recovers at a different rate. It is normal to experience some ups and downs.
During recovery, it is important that you follow instructions provided by your doctor along with a routine for medication, exercise and diet.
Common after-effects of any surgery include:
- Loss of appetite
- Problems sleeping
- Mood swings
You can take steps to help your body heal:
- Get plenty of sleep.
- Take your medications as prescribed.
- Eat a heart-healthy diet.
- Seek counseling to manage or reduce your stress levels.
- Ask your medical team questions if you need clarification.
As you recover, your doctor may ask that you:
- Walk, exercise, and bathe according to specific instructions.
- Avoid high contact sports or have other activity restrictions.
- Participate in physical therapy.
- Avoid certain foods which may affect your medications.
- Wait to remove bandages until you hear from your doctor.
- Report any falls, blows to the body or head, or other injuries right away.
Take your medications
During your hospital stay, your health care team will likely give you several medications. Knowing how to manage the medications you will need to take will help you stay healthy and well. Talk to your doctor if you have questions about any of your medications.
If you receive a mechanical heart valve, one of the medications you will be given is anticoagulant medication.
Follow-up visits and tests
A few weeks after surgery, you will have a follow-up visit with your surgeon or doctor. You may need to undergo tests such as an electrocardiogram, echocardiogram or chest X-ray to assess how your new valve is working. Your doctor may also perform blood work to assess your medication levels.
After your procedure, you will need to understand how to prevent and recognize signs of complications. This will include caring for your incision, preventing fluid retention and infection and understanding possible side effects of anticoagulation medication.
It is normal to have some discomfort, bruising, numbness, swelling and itching at your incision site for several weeks after surgery. Be sure to follow the instructions from your doctor or nurse for proper incision care.
Your care guidelines may include the following:
- A shower or gentle washing of the incision site is usually recommended.
- Tub baths are typically not allowed because they can affect your circulation.
- Avoid using creams or lotions around the incision site until otherwise directed by your doctor.
The wires holding your sternum together are permanent. Dissolvable stitches will usually disappear within one to three weeks but can remain up to six weeks, depending on the type of stitches you have.
After surgery, some people experience fluid retention that can overload the heart and make it work inefficiently. To prevent fluid retention, your physician may recommend dietary changes and/or medications.
You can help monitor this at home by weighing yourself every morning. Report any sudden weight gain of:
- Three pounds or more in one day
- Or five pounds or more in one week
You should also contact your doctor if you experience unusual shortness of breath or swelling of your hands, ankles or stomach.
Bacteria can enter the bloodstream during dental and some surgical procedures and cause an infection known as bacterial endocarditis in the tissue surrounding the artificial heart valve. Although this occurs infrequently, you should consult your doctor before you have any dental or surgical procedure so antibiotics can prescribed. Also, be sure to tell your dentist and any other doctors that you have had heart valve surgery.
Involve family and friends
Discussing what to expect with those around you will allow you to focus on a healthy recovery. Be sure to keep the lines of communication open with those you love and be clear about how and when you need help.
As your caregivers, family members or friends may want to:
- Attend your doctor appointments with you; this can be quite helpful, as they can take notes, organize any materials you receive, handle appointment scheduling and provide transportation
- Make arrangements for your recovery at home, including providing heart-healthy meals, assisting you with getting dressed and maintaining a stress-free environment
- Watch for signs of complications
- Keep you on schedule with medications and rehabilitation
- Help to keep your spirits up