Caregiving After Surgery for Heart Failure

Medically Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on June 17, 2020

If you're taking care of someone close to you who just came home after surgery for heart failure, follow your doctor's instructions carefully. Take these steps to help your loved one get on the road to recovery during the first 6 to 8 weeks after their operation.

Care of the Surgery Wound

Protect the area around the incision:

  • Keep it clean and dry.
  • Use only soap and water to clean it.
  • Eat a healthy diet to help healing.

Call the doctor if you see signs of an infection around the incision, such as:

  • Increased drainage or oozing
  • Opening of the wound
  • Redness or warmth
  • Fever greater than 100.4 F

You should also call the doctor if your loved one says their sternum (the breastbone) feels like it moves, or if it pops or cracks with movement. Get more details on how to care for a wound after surgery.

Pain Relief

It's normal for your loved one to feel some discomfort at the incision, as well as itching, tightness, or numbness. But the pain shouldn't be similar to what they felt before surgery.

They'll get a prescription for a pain medication before they leave the hospital. Learn more about how to manage pain after surgery.


Your loved one's doctor will tell them when they can get behind the wheel again. This usually happens 6 to 8 weeks after surgery, or less if it was a type of operation called "minimally invasive." Until they get the OK to drive, they can be a passenger as often as they like. Read up on getting back to other everyday activities.


The doctor will tell your loved one when they are allowed to get back to their regular routine. But for the first 6 to 8 weeks, follow these guidelines.

Slowly get more active. Household chores aren't a problem, but standing in one place longer than 15 minutes isn't recommended.

If it's heavy, don't mess with it. They shouldn't lift anything over 10 pounds. It's not a good idea to push or pull heavy objects either.

It's OK to climb stairs if the doctor agrees. But it's not a good idea to do it several times during the day, especially when they first arrive home. When planning activities, try to arrange them so your loved one goes downstairs in the morning and back upstairs when it's time for bed.

Walk every day. The doctor will give their guidelines about exercise when your loved one leaves the hospital. Find out how to exercise safely with heart disease.


Healthy eating is good for the healing process. The doctor may give special diet instructions. A poor appetite is common after surgery at first. If this happens to your loved one, encourage them to eat smaller, more frequent meals. Call the doctor if they still don't want much food after a few weeks. View a slideshow on foods that promote healing.


It's common for someone who's had surgery for heart failure surgery to feel sad. These feelings should go away after the first few weeks. If they don't, call the doctor.

You can help keep your loved one's spirits up by encouraging them to:

  • Get dressed every day.
  • Walk daily.
  • Do hobbies and social activities they enjoy.
  • Share their feelings with others.
  • Spend time with other people.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Join a support group or cardiac rehabilitation program.

Read more on how to manage emotions with heart failure.

Sleep After Surgery

Many people have trouble sleeping for a while after an operation for heart failure. Your loved one's normal sleep patterns should return within a few months. If not, or if lack of shut-eye brings changes in behavior, call the doctor.

Some things can help:

If your loved one has pain, suggest they take their pain medication about half an hour before bedtime. Offer to arrange the pillows so they can get into a comfortable position.

Although it's important to balance activity with rest during recovery, encourage your loved one not to take frequent naps during the day.

Tell them to avoid caffeine at night, such as chocolate, coffee, tea, and colas.

Have them get into a bedtime routine. If they follow the same rituals, their body learns to know it's time to relax and go to sleep. Learn more about heart failure and sleep problems.

Show Sources


Heart Failure Society of America: "Managing Feelings About Heart Failure."

American Heart Association: "For Heart Failure Caregivers," "Caregiver Resources."



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