If you had coronary artery bypass graft surgery, the life-threatening or severe blockages in your heart arteries have been corrected, but the work of improving your cardiovascularhealth is far from over. The blockages in your arteries were caused by an underlying, progressive disease process in which a fatty, waxy substance called plaque builds up on the artery walls and restricts blood flow. This same disease process can:
Long-term recovery from coronary bypass surgery will involve managing the risk factors that are contributing to your cardiovascular disease. Some risk factors, such as family history, can’t be changed, but others such as dietary and exercise habits can be. Medical professionals and support groups are available to help you make these and other lifestyle changes.
Read on for the steps you can take to improve your heart health after coronary artery bypass graft surgery. Remember that that the disease process that caused blockages in your heart arteries was progressive, and so will be recovery. Be sure to follow the guidelines of the medical professionals on your coronary bypass surgery care team for returning to physical activity, taking your medications, and other lifestyle changes you will be making after your surgery.
Healing after surgery. When you first get home from the hospital, you will focus on making steady improvement each day while slowly increasing activities according to your surgeon’s instructions. See SecondsCount’s section Recovery at Home for information on caring for your incisions and monitoring for signs of infection.
Smoking cessation. Smoking damages artery walls and contributes directly to coronary artery disease, the disease process that created blockages in your heart arteries. Heart bypass surgery did not cure your heart disease; it only bypassed serious blockages. If you smoke, quitting is essential to slowing the progression of your heart disease. Support is available to help you quit. The tools and resources here can help you get started on quitting and assist you along the way.
Medications. When you leave the hospital, you will have prescriptions for medications aimed at promoting healthy, comfortable healing from the surgery and reducing risk factors for future heart attacks. If you were already taking these medications, you may have new dosages. After coronary artery bypass graft surgery you will probably receive prescriptions for medications:
- to reduce cholesterol,
- antiplatelets and aspirin to prevent blood clots,
- beta-blockers and ACE inhibitors to help lower blood pressure, and
- nitrates to control chest pain (if some diseased blood vessels could not be bypassed).
Eating a healthy diet. As with smoking, a poor diet will continue to contribute to your cardiovascular disease. Coronary bypass surgery may have saved your life or lessened or stopped chest pain, but it did not cure the heart disease process, which is progressive. A heart-healthy diet that is low in cholesterol and saturated and trans-fats can slow or stop the build-up of plaque on artery walls throughout the body. If you have not already spoken with a nutritionist, ask your physician for a referral to one who can help you design a plan for healthy eating.
Cardiac rehabilitation. This structured program, often referred to simply as “cardiac rehab,” offers medical support and assistance in adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle. Through cardiac rehab, patients have opportunities for exercise that is monitored by a medical professional, nutrition counseling, and psychological counseling, among other offerings. The importance of cardiac rehab cannot be stressed enough: Research has shown that heart disease patients who complete cardiac rehab are more likely to be alive in five years than those who do not. Cardiac rehab is covered by Medicare for eligible patients.
Physical activity. Your physician or physical therapist will give you exercise guidelines for after your surgery. One of the best ways to restart (or start) physical activity after surgery is to participate in a cardiac rehab program at your hospital, where you can have the reassurance of being monitored by health professionals. For at least the first six weeks after your surgery, you should not lift anything that is over 10 pounds. Your sternum (chest bone) will need this time to heal. As you return to physical activity, walking is an excellent choice for gradually rebuilding your activity level.
Sexual activity. It is common to feel shy about asking when it is safe to resume sexual activity after bypass surgery. However, you should feel comfortable in asking your surgeon for guidelines. While your doctor’s recommendations will be tailored to your health and circumstances, generally speaking, once you have been cleared by your doctor for physical activity, sexual activity is also approved. It is also important to note that one-half to three-quarters of patients experience sexual problems after a heart event due to heart disease, side effects form medications, depression, or fear of straining the heart. Information here can help you better understand common concerns related to resuming sexual activity after bypass surgery.
Diabetes management. Diabetes contributes to cardiovascular disease, and coronary artery bypass graft surgery is often recommended over other treatment options for diabetes patients with blockages in multiple arteries. A key part of your recovery if you have diabetes will consist of carefully managing the disease in conjunction with your healthcare providers.
Stress management. Stress and coronary artery disease create a vicious cycle: chronic stress appears to be a risk factor for heart disease, and a diagnosis of heart disease (or a heart event followed by treatment such as coronary bypass surgery) is stressful. Medical researchers are not sure exactly how stress contributes to heart disease, but the connection is clear. Learning how to manage your stressis part of a heart-healthy lifestyle.
Combating depression. Many patients feel sad or overwhelmed after a heart event or surgery, but you should be aware that many heart disease patients experience clinical depression. Like stress, depression is also a risk factor for depression. Research has shown that depression can increase the likelihood of heart disease, a heart attack, or sudden death from heart problems. If you are concerned that a normal reaction of sadness after coronary bypass surgery is becoming long-term, clinical depression, seek help from a psychologist with experience working with heart patients (if possible). A hospital’s cardiac rehab program is one excellent source for identifying a psychologist who can help you.
Support groups. If you are recovering from bypass surgery, it can help to talk with people who understand exactly what you are experiencing physically and emotionally. Support groups are available through your local hospital or volunteer groups such as Mended Hearts and WomenHeart: The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease.
For more information on organizations and programs that can help you understand aspects of your long-term recovery, please visit SecondsCount’s Resources on Coronary Artery Bypass Graft Surgery.