Heart attack

Recovery from Coronary Artery Bypass Surgery

Here we talk about recovery from coronary artery bypass surgery, in those people for whom it was undertaken as a result of their heart attack. For experiences of recovering from a heart attack (see 'Recovering from your heart attack', 'Cardiac rehabilitation and support' and other summaries in the   'Recovery at home' section).

Many people have a mixed feelings on returning home after bypass surgery - happy to be home again, but at the same time feeling anxious that they no longer have the security of the hospital around them. One man said that being home was a bit daunting at first, but described how his confidence built up over time.

It takes most people about two to three months to recover fully after the operation. For the first three to six weeks many people feel very tired, especially at the end of the day.

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The people we interviewed said they gradually built up their strength in stages. They set goals and they gave their body time to recover and heal. Many said they began by walking and they walked a little further each time.

It takes several weeks for the breastbone and scars from the surgery to heal. Some people's scars were beginning to fade after four months. Others were still quite prominent after a few years. A few younger people felt conscious of their scars. One 39-year-old man described his feelings about exposing his scars when going swimming with his children. Another woman in her fifties said she wore trousers all the time at first because she didn't want anyone to see the scar on her leg.

Playing with young children or grandchildren might take a bit of time after bypass surgery. One man explained that he had to be a bit careful at first and talks about how his young son reacted to his scar. Another man said he was a bit wary at first of his chest when his granddaughter sat on his lap, but his doctor had reassured him that the breastbone had healed.

If a vein was removed from the leg, it may also feel uncomfortable. Some had no problems with their leg but others said their leg gave them more problems after the operation than their chest. Some wore a support stocking to help the leg to heal. The scar on one man's leg was slow to heal.

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Some people noticed numbness or pins and needles around the scar on their legs or chest after bypass surgery. One man still felt numbness on the left side of his chest five years after bypass surgery.

Many hospitals offer a cardiac rehabilitation programme for people who've had heart surgery. The programme, which usually lasts at least six weeks, aims to help people recover from the procedure and get back to everyday life as quickly as possible (NHS Choices 2015). These programmes vary but usually start about four to six weeks after heart surgery. Many people talked about the benefits of these programmes during their recovery, though one woman chose to use the Heart Manual rather than attend an organised programme and one man said he would have liked to have done more strenuous exercises.

Cardiac rehabilitation classes should be tailored to the individual's needs' if they seem not to be, it is worth discussing this with the cardiac rehabilitation nurses. For people's experiences of cardiac rehabilitation programmes after a heart attack (see 'Cardiac rehabilitation and support' and 'Community-based exercise programme (Phase 4)').

People should not drive for at least four weeks after bypass surgery. One man had problems with driving and found ways to make it easier.

After slowly building up their strength and giving their bodies time to heal, many could return to normal activities three to four months after bypass surgery. One man, a hospital consultant, described what it was like going back to work after his bypass surgery.

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Three men had joined a gym. Another returned to dancing. One man was playing golf 6 weeks after his operation. One woman walked to the top of Snowdon seven months after her bypass surgery.

People's experiences described here are of successful outcomes. Recovery for those who had a stroke or heart failure after bypass surgery would be longer and with greater long-term limitations. 

Last reviewed June 2017.

Last updated June 2017.

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