After an aortic valve replacement, you'll usually need to stay in hospital for about a week.
The time it takes to fully recover varies depending on factors like your age and overall health.
Your breastbone will usually heal in about 6 to 8 weeks, but it may be 2 to 3 months before you feel your normal self again.
Recovering in hospital
You'll usually stay in an intensive care unit (ICU) for the first day or 2 after your operation, before moving to a surgical ward.
Staying in an ICU
While you're in the ICU:
- you may be kept asleep for the first few hours, or until the following morning
- the activity of your heart, lungs and bodily functions will be closely monitored
- you'll be given painkillers for when your anaesthetic wears off – let a nurse or the doctor in charge of your care know if these aren't helping
- a tube attached to a ventilator will be placed down your throat until you're able to breathe on your own – this may be uncomfortable and you won't be able to talk, eat or drink while it's in place
When you're taken off the ventilator, a mask will be placed over your mouth and nose to supply oxygen for you to breathe.
Moving to a ward
You'll be moved from the ICU to a surgical ward once the doctors treating you think you're ready.
You may have several tubes and monitors attached to you during the first few days of your stay.
These could include:
- chest drains – small tubes from your chest to drain away any build-up of blood or fluid
- pacing wires – if necessary, these will be inserted near the chest drains to control your heart rate
- wires attached to sensor pads – these can be used to measure your heart rate, blood pressure and blood flow, and the air flow to your lungs
- a catheter – a tube inserted into your bladder so you can pass urine
Your care team will focus on increasing your appetite and getting you back on your feet.
Someone from the cardiac rehabilitation team or physiotherapy department will give you advice about getting back to normal, and where there's a cardiac rehabilitation programme or support group in your area.
The aim is to help you recover quickly and get back to living as full and active a life as you can, while preventing further heart problems.
Depending on how well you progress, you should be able to leave the hospital about a week after your operation.
Before going home, you'll be given advice about caring for your wound and any activities you need to avoid until you have recovered.
Returning to your normal activities
You'll need to take things easy at first. Starting gentle exercise, such as walking, can be helpful when you feel up to it, but don't try to do too much too quickly.
Your doctor or surgeon can give you specific advice about when you can return to your normal activities, but generally speaking:
- you can be a passenger in a car straight away
- you may not be able to drive for around 6 weeks – wait until you can comfortably do an emergency stop
- you can have sex after 4 to 6 weeks – make sure you feel strong enough first
- when you can return to work depends on the type of work you do – this could be as soon as 6 to 8 weeks if your job mainly involves light work, but may not be for 3 months if it involves manual labour
- you should avoid strenuous exercise, sudden strains and heavy lifting for 3 months
Possible side effects
While at home, you may experience some temporary side effects that should start to improve as you recover.
These can include:
- pain and discomfort – you can take painkillers to relieve this, although it should improve as your wound heals
- swelling and redness around your wound that should gradually fade
- loss of appetite
- difficulty sleeping (insomnia)
- constipation – drinking plenty of fluids and eating fruit and vegetables can help with this; your doctor may also suggest taking a laxative
- mood swings, irritability, anxiety and depression – these are completely normal after major surgery; talking to your friends and family can help, and your cardiac nurse can also offer support
- loss of interest in sex – this is common in people with serious illnesses; in men, the associated emotional stress can also result in erectile dysfunction
Speak to your GP or cardiac nurse for advice if you're struggling to cope with the after effects of your operation or they don't seem to be improving.
When to get medical advice
Contact your GP if you experience:
- increasing redness, swelling or tenderness around the wound
- pus or fluid oozing from the wound
- pain that's getting worse
- a high temperature of 38C (100.4F) or above
- increasing shortness of breath
- a return of the symptoms you had before the operation
These symptoms could be a sign of a problem such as an infection.
Read more about the risks of an aortic valve replacement.