Broken Sternum Recovery… And, The Pain

By Adam Pick on October 31, 2007

I approach this topic with delicate care.

“Why?” you may be wondering.

Well…. Let me explain.

It is one thing to realize you need heart surgery.

It is another thing to realize you need to have your sternum broken in the process. That said, heart valve surgery is somewhat of a double whammy.

Yes. There is anesthesia.

Yes. There is pain medication.

Yes. There are medical facts which suggest that you will live longer after heart valve surgery.


Broken Sternum Recovery
Me… One Week After Open Heart Valve Surgery



There is also pain. There is also doubt. And, there is a lot of that thing called “fear”.

Guess what?

I’m here to tell you that if I can make it through double heart valve surgery…

If I can make it through broken sternum recovery…

If I am now surfing after cardiac surgery and scuba diving after heart surgery after having my chest cracked…

So can you!


No Pain, No Gain?

In the 1970’s, there was a saying that circled places like Muscle Beach in Venice, California. It went something like, “No pain! No gain!”

Personally, I never believed in it.

That cliche, in my opinion, was a contradictory stimulus used to hype body-builders for the purpose of “looking good” in tank tops and short-shorts. That’s not my way. “Pain” doesn’t feel good to me.

Still, I am very physical and very active – I exercise five times a week (both before and after heart surgery).

However, when it comes to heart valve surgery, specifically broken sternum recovery, there is a lot of truth to the saying, “No pain! No gain!”

The 2007 Heart Valve Surgery Patient Survey (now available in my book) suggests that the majority of patients find cardiac surgery recovery – which includes broken sternum recovery – more difficult than expected. In fact, one of the biggest challenges patients have is broken sternum recovery.

As a former heart valve surgery patient, I know why…

It’s a real simple answer…

Ready for it?

Here’s why…


But, the long-term gain heavily outweighs the short-term pain.

Trust me. With each day that goes by, your broken sternum will be less and less agitated. Slowly, you will be able to do the things you did before the operation (e.g. driving after heart surgery).

Soon enough, your broken sternum recovery will be complete and you’ll be thinking to yourself…

“I did it! I made it through heart valve surgery. I made it through broken sternum recovery. I am thankful for my second chance at life!”

I hope this helps you better understand broken sternum recovery.

Keep on tickin!

Written by Adam Pick
- Patient & Website Founder

Adam Pick, Heart Valve Patient Advocate

Adam Pick is a heart valve patient and author of The Patient's Guide To Heart Valve Surgery. In 2006, Adam founded to educate and empower patients. This award-winning website has helped over 10 million people fight heart valve disease. Adam has been featured by the American Heart Association and Medical News Today.

Adam Pick is a heart valve patient and author of The Patient's Guide To Heart Valve Surgery. In 2006, Adam founded to educate and empower patients. This award-winning website has helped over 10 million people fight heart valve disease. Adam has been featured by the American Heart Association and Medical News Today.

Kathy Mccain says on January 23rd, 2008 at 10:45 pm


I understand, and am preparing myself for perhaps the greatest challenge in my life! Your story is a positive, and encouraging testimony for all heart patients. I mentioned your book to my cardio and he said he would like to read it. I think I’ll loan it out to him.

Best regards, Kathy Mccain

Curt says on June 28th, 2008 at 11:12 am

Hi Adam,

Thanks for the site. Just had my aorta and mitral valves replaced due to vegetation of the aorta and and abscess on the mitral from sepsis. It was weird to see not only the same incision but also the same chest tube openings as I have in your photo.

Each day I’m getting stronger, getting up a flight of stairs, walking up to the top of the driveway to get mail and just starting to do more. The chest plate hurts and some days it hurts a lot, but its been a little over 3 wks now, off of the heavy duty pain killers and just on some tylenol now. Sneezing I have to say – is the damned scariest and most pain thing – always have some kind of pillow or cushion handy, give it a big bear hug and sneeze away…. if there is nothing available at hand, just wrap your arms tightly and you’ll get through it.

I’d say the only “annoying” thing – is having to sleep on my back, I’m a side and stomach sleeper, so this has been tough. I’m starting to sleep a little on my sides, but find I am very sore in the mornings, so back to sleeping on my back for perhaps another week.

Thanks again for the website!!!


Al says on June 30th, 2008 at 3:32 pm

Hi Curt
It will get better. I had quaddruple bypass in January and had the same incision with the opening of the sternum, mine also looks exactly as Adam’s pic.

I also am a side sleeper and it was difficult for a few weeks to sleep on my back. The pain was not bad and I got by with Tylenol only. The thing that bothered me was the noise the sternum would make when I turned and of course the fear of sneezing or coughing, grab a pillow.

After I finally recovered from the sternum deal and was able to now sleep on my side, I went in for Carotid Artery surgery in May and could again could not sleep on my side and the paid was worse than bypass surgery.

Take Care and Hang in There

john says on July 6th, 2008 at 12:44 pm

Hi Al. Tell me please ,when “noise the sternum” stop to you? After how long time?I had a surgeon before 45 days. I sleep in my side but i weak up from pain and i’m sleeping to other side.Sorry for my english.

Dennis says on July 15th, 2008 at 11:43 am

I had a double bypass in march of 07 and sometime during my recovery a wire broke and although I complained of the pain nothing was done to see why until this month and that is how we found the wire.I have a maligned sternum and was told it is better to live with it then go thru the surgery again.It moves and cracks and hurts like heck at times, like when I work it hard.But it is better then pushing up dasies..

Nancy Rodgers says on September 22nd, 2008 at 10:32 pm

I had bypass surgery and I had pain. But the pain kept getting worse radiating into my arm and shoulder blade. I kept complaining to the doctor and and he said give it more time. It kept on. After a year I went to another doctor to find out that the wires were all broken and the sternum had never healed. I went back to the original doctor who opened me up again and rewired all the wires and at first I felt better. Then the incision got infected, the stitches were hanging out and the pain got worse. 3 years later another doctor did an mri to discover the wires are broken again. I am in constant pain. You can put your fingers in the middle of my sternum and tell that it is seperated by about 1/4 inch. I can’t twist sideways, I click with every breath. I can’t pick up, push or pull anything heavy. I am miserable. But since it has been so long I can’t do anything about it. If you dont’ feel right keep pushing your doctor to check. He wouldn’t even give me any pain medicine, stating that all I wanted was the meds. BULL

Doug Brooks says on March 16th, 2009 at 4:46 pm

Thanks again Adam for your book. I am 6 months today from mitral repair, maze and triple bypass along with 2 carotids. The broken sternum you explainen in your book was right. I still get a little tender, but can mainly sneeze or cough and do not even think of it. I am 66, in good shape and still trying to continue my recovery. My problem was overdoing right off, then had a set back for a few weeks because I was too sore.

I really like the comments on recoveries after 4 months or so to know that I am still on the right track. I am swimming, playing tennis etc. One problem I do have is it seems that when it is hot and humid (I live in Mexico on the ocean) I seem to get short of breath, or the air seems really heavy. Does anyone else have or had that as well, and will it go away?

Thanks again for all your dedication and the information you put out there for us all to read, learn and digest. It does make it all easier to know someone else has been there.

Keep tickin’ to all

Barb Siess says on May 7th, 2009 at 9:27 pm

Already had heart surgery-15 years ago, now need 2 valves replaced, having angina attacks, light-headed, how fast should I be admitted? Doctor said now, but I have to wait for my check at the end of the month, putting this off is bad or things in heart stays the same??

Lynn CassidyB says on August 6th, 2009 at 7:39 pm

My daughter has heart surg to repair a VSD at the age of 5. At the age of 43 she had to have more surg on a contenital defect. At the time the surgeon told us her sternum was very soft. (like an 80 year old. Has anyone heard of anything like this?

Luis Pellicia says on March 29th, 2011 at 3:28 pm

I am 37 yars old emergency physician and on january 28, 2011 I was diagnosed with a Thymoma. I will be undergoing a median sternotomy in 3 weeks. Is amazing how much comfort your short words provide. I wish you the best and hope that others can get to them before their procedures. I know what I am going to get done I have done it on others but never thought It will happened to me but hearing somebody elses experience makes a big difference.

Jeff Johnson says on April 18th, 2011 at 2:51 pm

I am a gastroenteroloist (age 38), who like Luis has an anterior mediastinal mass (possible thymoma) and will likely need a sternotomy in the next month. I am glad to hear that your experience was positive as I am a very active guy and want to get back to work soon as possible.

To Luis, I am with you and we probably share the same thoughts.

Diane says on July 11th, 2011 at 12:22 pm

42YO female almost 4 weeks post op. anterior mediastinal mass, pathology a little unclear to me more at next appointment. Follow up in two weeks. I am still in a lot of pain. I have pain meds but they make me sick so I stick to just Advil and Tylenol. Chest is still very sore, but my muscles are the worst. I have some muscle relaxers and they help somehwat- I only take them at night and they do help me sleep. I too am a side sleeper and have struggled sleeping on my back- something that has helped is to prop my arms up on pillows or to place one under my shoulder blade slightly raising one side or the other. I wake in a panic almost nightly trying to catch my breath because my chest is so heavy. I drove for a very short bit today and it wasn’t too bad. I have a jeep and it is very easy to turn due to the short wheel base. I also have a mini van and could not drive that- could not turn to get into the parking space. I am a SCUBA diver and regret having the surgery during the summer months, but was having shortness of breath and pain so I guess its best I did have it removed. I was only in the hospital for 2 1/2 days I was a little surprised at the short stay, but that may be due to insurance logistics these days…. be prepared for immense pain post op due to the chest tube and general movements like breathing. I had a thorasic(sp?) epidural with little relief so they removed it and they rolled me from side to side to change sheets etc. OUCH! I had a chest Xray 2 weeks post op to insure the sternom is healing and the wires are intact.

The most challenging so far has been getting dressed- can’t push or pull so getting a bra off and on is tough. I try to wear a button up shirt so I don’t have to pull it over my head. Good luck to everyone!

Kevin says on April 13th, 2012 at 6:46 am

I had endocarditis last yr. Puking 2x a day and losing 80lbs in 4 months. My mitro valve replacement will be a (this will sound funny) walk in the park. I had to learn how to walk again. So I need the surgery and it will happen next week. My faith and what I’ve been thru, this will emd up ok.

Charlotte says on June 3rd, 2012 at 4:11 pm

Hi everyone, I’m a 38 year old mother of two and 7 time marathon runner and 2 weeks ago I had a median sternotomy because of stage 1 thymoma. My hospital stay was 2 1/2 days and the pain was intense at first. My chest still hurts a little even now and laying on my side is still a problem. Does anyone know when I will be able to really play with my children and run again? My greatest fear is not being able to be active. A “cracked chest” will always be in the back of my mind. I just hate to have that thought when I’m chasing my kids around the yard or when I’m at mile 25 and I begin to push towards the finish line. What can I expect? I know everyone is different, but what is the norm?

Diane says on June 3rd, 2012 at 10:27 pm

Charlotte, My post was from July of 2011. I am here to tell you, you will be back to running strong soon. I was scuba diving about 2months after my medial sternotomy. It was a long recovery and it sounds like you are in much better shape than I. 4 months post op I ran an 8 k with no training( just over an hour) hang in there you will be chasing those kids soon, take it easy on yourself!

Chris says on May 1st, 2016 at 7:10 pm

I am a 37 yr old female with thorasic outlet syndrome. It affects veins. Not the heart and usually fixed by a rib being removed to release the compressed vein affected. However, after having my 1st rib removed last year, i have undergone many angioplastys to reopen the damaged vein. None have worked. Earlier today i was informed that the vein is almost 100% occluded again despite the 3 angioplatys i had ten days ago and i am out of options. I need to have the vein replaced by a cadaver femoral artery. To do this, my breast plate has to be broken and possibly my collarbone. I was scared to have my rib removed. And yes. It HURT! im almost one year into the rib resection recovery and still in pain. So as you can imagine i am petrified! I cried talking to the dr then i shook uncontrollably for a good half hour. Since my condition is not common, i cannot find anything online that lines up with my story. I researched the recovery time of the broken breast plate and although your story is different- i felt relief reading your words. I know this is going to be a nightmare but it helps me find strength when i find someone who can relate. No one in my life can do anything but apologize or pretend its not as big of a deal as it actually is. How long did it take to recover from the break?
Thank you again for publishing your story.


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