Sternum Cracking… How Bad Does It Hurt After Heart Valve Surgery?
Ahh yes… The good ole’ sternum cracking question. I’ve received this question a number of times from friends and family following my surgery. As you can read in my story, I had the Ross Procedure.
Unfortunately, my cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr. Vaughn Starnes (USC), could not use a minimally invasive procedure considering he needed direct access to my defective aortic valve which was suffering from aortic stenosis and regurgitation. My congenital bicuspid valve had become very calcified during my 34 years of life prior to the surgery.
In any case, Dr. Starnes needed to perform a median sternotomy to perform the valve replacement. So you know, median sternotomy is a type of surgical procedure in which a vertical incision is made along the sternum, after which the sternum itself is “cracked”. This procedure provides access to the heart and lungs for surgical procedures such as heart transplants, corrective surgery for congenital heart defects including heart valve replacements.
FYI, median sternotomy is often mistakenly referred to as open-heart surgery; however, open heart involves incision of the pericardium, and many median sternotomy procedures do not require this.
That said, back to the cracked sternum pain… “HOW PAINFUL WAS IT?”
Well, let me just say that it wasn’t fun.
Similar to the entire heart valve surgery experience, it was like a roller coaster – a number of ups and downs. Sometimes I didn’t notice it. Other times the incision throbbed.
For example, following my aortic replacement, I was given a prescription of Vicodin as I left USC Medical Center in Los Angeles. Upon departure from the hospital, I was taking eight to twelve Vicodin per day. As you might imagine, I didn’t feel much pain on those days. 🙂
However, as the Vicodin levels were brought down and the dosage reduced, the pain started to be much more noticeable and quite uncomfortable. As you can read in my book, the pain brought about a number of issues for me which led to a little bit of a dependence on Vicodin.
Ultimately, I think the heavy use of pain medication and sleeping pills triggered cardiac depression during my recovery. This was a very trying time for me and my family. Had I known a little bit more about the realities of the recovery, I could have avoided these issues. Again, for a patient’s perspective on the heart valve surgery experience, I highly encourage you to read my book. I wrote it for both patients and caregivers.
THE GOOD NEWS: It’s been 14 months since my surgery… The pain has pretty much subsided. I’m working on my big physical goal right now… to surf after open heart surgery. That said, sternum cracking pain in the incision is simply, an uncomfortable, but temporary part of the valve repair and valve replacement experience. Besides, what is the alternative to a little bit of pain – A dialted heart and eventual death? I’ll take the pain! 🙂
Keep on tickin!
Adam Pick is a patient, author of The Patient's Guide To Heart Valve Surgery and the founder of HeartValveSurgery.com.