During open-heart surgery, your breastbone (sternum) is separated so your surgeon can access the heart. Following surgery, it’s repaired and aligned into the proper position.

To make sure your sternum heals properly, your surgeon will most likely give you a list of actions and activities to avoid. This list is called your sternal precautions.

Sternal precautions are a method to prevent:

  • excessive pulling on the incision made to access your heart
  • the breastbone pulling apart as it heals

Sternal precautions might vary depending on your surgeon or rehabilitation facility, but they typically include instructions such as:

  • Don’t reach both arms overhead.
  • Don’t reach both arms out to the side.
  • Don’t reach behind your back.
  • Don’t lift more than 5 to 8 pounds.
  • Don’t push with your arms. For example, don’t push yourself up from a chair.
  • Don’t pull with your arms. For example, don’t pull open a heavy door.
  • Don’t drive.

Sternal precautions can make many of the typical movements during the course of your day seem impossible, but support is out there.

Postoperative physical therapy or occupational therapy can help you follow sternal precautions while recovering. Your physical or occupational therapist will teach you how to safely do daily activities, such as:

  • standing up from a seated position
  • climbing stairs (without pulling on the railing)
  • turning over in bed
  • using a cane or walker
  • performing everyday activities, such as dressing, brushing your hair, etc.

Follow your sternal precautions as long as your surgeon tells you to.

Typically, you’ll have to wait until your breastbone is healed. According to the Cleveland Clinic, this takes about six to eight weeks after open-heart surgery. At that time, your sternum should be about 80 percent healed and strong enough to resume your normal activities.

When recovering from open-heart surgery, following your doctor’s orders, including sternal precautions, are critical for optimizing the healing process.

Talk with your doctor and ask questions to make sure you know what’s expected of you. Keep in mind that not everybody heals at the same rate.