Open-heart surgery saves lives but may come with long-term side effects like chronic pain, issues concentrating, or anxiety. Proper aftercare and health-promoting habits can help minimize risks.

Open-heart surgery refers to any surgery where the chest is opened, and surgery is performed on the heart. It comes with some immediate risks like chest wounds, pain, or infection. In the longer term, patients may experience side effects like an irregular heartbeat or mental and emotional changes.

Fortunately, most side effects should dissipate within about 6 months. Following your doctor’s instructions, maintaining a lifestyle that supports your health, and reducing stress can also minimize risks. Here’s what to expect.

Some patients experience side effects for weeks or months following open-heart surgery. The type of heart issue, the method of surgery, and your general health all play a role in whether issues will develop.

Long-term side effects of heart surgery include:

The risk of complications tends to rise if the heart surgery takes place due to a sudden emergency event, such as a heart attack. Risks may be higher if you have other conditions like:

There are ways to reduce the risk of issues following surgery, including:

  • following your doctor’s aftercare instructions
  • making heart-healthy lifestyle changes prioritizing certain foods, staying physically active, exercising regularly, quitting smoking if you smoke, and maintaining a moderate weight
  • maintaining healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels
  • avoiding heavy lifting or other activities that could negatively affect your health
  • managing stress and anxiety
  • maintaining a healthy sleep schedule
  • reporting any signs of swelling, infection, fever, fluid retention, or heartbeat changes to your doctor

Most hospitals offer a cardiac rehabilitation program, which typically includes education, physical therapy, and emotional support.

Open-heart surgery is a major procedure that understandably may come with some emotional shifts. Some people experience changes following the procedure, such as:

For example, some people, like Dr. Richard Gale, explain that they felt anxious doing activities they once did due to fear of another heart incident. Others may feel depressed due to the amount of time they need to spend on bed rest or worry they won’t be able to keep up with work responsibilities.

Research also suggests that those who undergo heart transplants, in particular, may experience:

However, the changes that occur in a heart transplant aren’t yet well understood, partly because the operation is still quite rare.

Positive changes

Keep in mind that not only can types of emotional changes differ post-surgery based on individual situations, but they can also differ in their impact and the length of time they occur.

In a small 2019 study conducted in the Middle East, research indicated that mental health issues actually decreased in the weeks following open-heart surgery.

Researchers noted that while a significant number of study participants experienced anxiety and depressive symptoms prior to undergoing the surgery, anxiety and depressive symptoms were much lower at 6 months post-op than pre-op.

Some people did experience cognitive decline for 1 week following surgery but then improved significantly at the 6-month checkup. The overall quality of life also significantly improved for most of the patients.

While this study is small, it does suggest that heart surgery has a positive long-term impact on most patients.

How do you cope with emotional changes following open-heart surgery?

Working with a therapist can be a great way to help process your emotions and create a supportive plan for how to handle the difficult ones. Other resourceful measures to aid your recovery include:

  • asking your doctor about participating in a cardiac rehabilitation program, which offers a supervised path to healing and wellness
  • visiting the American Heart Association and British Heart Foundation websites, which provide resources, including recovery checklists, heart-healthy recipes, and peer support
  • considering online or in-person support groups, which can help you connect with and learn from others experiencing the same situation
  • considering in-person or online therapy, which can help you cope with any emotional challenges you may experience during your recovery
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Your recovery timeline will largely depend on the type of surgery you have. Coronary artery bypass graft surgery, a common type of open heart surgery, typically has a recovery period of up to 12 weeks.

Your unique recovery also depends on your overall fitness and aftercare regimen. For instance, attending cardiac rehabilitation and getting plenty of rest can aid in your recovery and may accelerate the healing process.

Talk with your cardiology team to learn what they recommend for your recovery process.

Resources for open-heart surgery recovery

Resources that can aid your recovery include:

  • Cardiac rehabilitation program: Consider asking your doctor about participating in a cardiac rehabilitation program. The program offers a supervised path to healing and wellness.
  • American Heart Association and British Heart Foundation: These websites provide many resources, including recovery checklists, heart-healthy recipes, and peer support.
  • Online or in-person support groups: These groups can help you connect with and learn from others experiencing the same situation.
  • In-person or online therapy: Therapy can help you cope with any emotional challenges you may experience during your recovery.
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Open-heart surgery may come with long-term side effects like chronic pain and mental and emotional changes. Following your doctor’s orders, attending cardiac rehab, and making heart-healthy lifestyle changes can significantly aid your recovery.

You can typically expect a full recovery about 6 months following surgery. Support groups, therapy, and stress-reducing techniques can help you cope with the healing process and live well.