Doctor Q&A: When Can I Return to Normal Activity After Heart Surgery?

By Adam Pick on January 13, 2017

It is one of the best and most common questions I receive from patients. That fantastic question is, “When can I return to normal activity after heart surgery?”

To answer this important question, I was VERY LUCKY to interview Dr. David Adams at the recent Heart Valve Summit. So you know, Dr. Adams is the Cardiac Surgeon-in-Chief at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York and he is the Co-Founder of the Heart Valve Summit. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to see Dr. Adams operate here in the United States and on a medical mission in the Dominican Republic. Dr. Adams has been one of our greatest supporters AND he has successfully treated over 100 patients from our community including Brian Walsh, Sophie Marsh, and Boris Keyser. 🙂

Here are the highlights from my interview with Dr. Adams:




The “Individuality” of Patient Healing

Personally, I really LOVE what Dr. Adams says about the “individuality” of patient healing in this video. It’s so true. All patients are unique. We heal at different rates. Please remember that as you (or your loved one) begin the recovery process.

Personally, during my recovery, I experienced some issues with sternum irritation and pain medication. At times, the recovery was not fun. For me, starting cardiac rehabilitation was a big turning point in my recovery. Those sessions really helped me physically, emotionally and spiritually. I encourage all patients to have a recovery plan in place (that includes cardiac rehab) prior to surgery. All in all… It’s 11 years after my surgery and I’m doing great!


Patient On Bicycle During Cardiac RehabMe (Adam) At Torrance Memorial Cardiac Rehab Program


On behalf of our entire community… Many, many, many, many thanks to Dr. David Adams for taking the time to share his clinical expertise and research with us! And, many thanks to the awesome team at Mount Sinai Hospital including Gideon Sims and Flo Kelemen!

Keep on tickin!!!

P.S. For the hearing impaired members of our community, please find a written transcript of my interview with Dr. Adams below:

Adam: Hi, everybody, it’s Adam with We’re here at the Heart Valve Summit in Chicago, Illinois, and I am honored and thrilled to be with Dr. David Adams, who is the cardiac surgeon and chief at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. He is also one of the founders of the Heart Valve Summit. Dr. Adams, thanks so much for being with me today.

Dr. Adams:  Adam, good to see you again.

Adam: Yeah, so Dr. Adams, we were just talking about some very common questions that patients have. I know they see you a lot; just so I know, how many procedures do you do a year these days?

Dr. Adams: My mitral team is going to do around 450 operations this year. We see about 750, and we operate on about 450, so a busy group

Adam:  That is a busy group. I imagine one of the questions that you get is from the patients, when can I return to normal activities after my heart valve surgery? How do you respond to them?

Dr. Adams:  I always tell patients, Adam, that the first week, you’re going to be in the hospital. It takes four or five days to have an open heart operation and feel good enough to go home. Now one thing I tell them is they’re probably not going home on pain medicine. By the time they go home, they’re going to be able to walk. They’re going to be going up and down stairs. Lots of them live, at least in the northeast, and they have to go upstairs to their bedrooms. Most of them only go home on Tylenol or Motrin. They’re not taking pain pills anymore. That’s a big change, by the way, in the last decade. A lot of that has to do with how we both open and close patients but certainly you’re going to be sore.

Your second week at home, I always tell them, is going to be about just taking care of themselves. They’re going to be in comfortable clothes. I want them to be able to take naps. I want them to go outside. I want them to be able to walk around. They’re going to be tired; they’re going to be recovering from surgery

The third week, I tell them they’re starting to get their sea legs back. We operate on lots of patients from all over the United States. We’re comfortable putting them on airplanes after 15 or 16 days. By the third week, they’re ready to go face JFK and go fly all over the country, so they’re getting better. They’re not perfect yet, but they’re getting better. A lot of people in New York are back to work during the third week, especially people that have desk jobs or patients that can control their schedule. I tell them, “Don’t go back full-time the third week. Go back part time. Be able to come home in the afternoon. Still take care of yourself.” It’s not that often you get to do that for a while, at least in New York. That’s actually a luxury. You might as well take advantage of it.

By the fourth week, people are really getting back to their routine. We get asked all the time, “I have a trip planned,” or, “I have a big family event, or now it’s Thanksgiving and Christmas. What kind of time frame do I need to really be able to know I’m going to enjoy that and not feel limited?” That’s usually in the fourth or fifth week. Again, that’s all local how you do things, but by four or five weeks, most patients are getting back to their routine. Certainly, I tell patients by six or seven weeks, you should have this behind you.

The only other thing I’ll comment on is the individuality of patients. I try and tell people it’s like orthopedics. You may be a little sore. You may still move certain ways and remind yourself you have something, so be smart. Don’t do things that hurt. You can’t work your way out of that. That means you need to rest. Just like if you’ve sprained your ankle, you start bringing up your activity level as you do more things and you don’t hurt. You don’t get more active when it hurts; you rest. This is the same thing with heart surgery. If you’re doing activities that are hurting you, you probably need to decrease that. If you’re doing things and it’s not hurting, I think it’s safe to expand that. That’s how we coach patients.

It is remarkable; we see almost all our patients back during the fourth or fifth week, and very few of them have any complaints. Almost all of them have really rejoined their life.

Adam:   Fantastic. Dr. Adams, thanks for the response. Thanks for sharing that with all of our patients out there. Again, thanks for the extraordinary support of this global community for heart valve therapy. There’s over 300 people here, I know, congregating to learn about the latest techniques, and practices, and the fact that you started this, one of the co-founders, it’s just a testament to the space. We can’t be more thrilled with what you’ve done. Thank you so much.

Dr. Adams:  I will thank you, Adam, for your leadership. I think this has really been an exciting decade in valvular heart disease. You’ve helped me on this journey, and I think a lot of this is around trying to take better care. All of us are trying to take better care of patients, so it’s been a lot of fun.

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.

ex members says on January 15th, 2017 at 10:11 pm

I think recovery is a very individual creature, its all dependent on age, how fit you were BEFORE surgery and what your lifestyle is. For me I had what I call my ‘turning point’ at about 7/8 weeks when I helped at a garden party serving tea and scones for a church fundraiser!! I spent 4 hours standing and working and people who spoke to me couldn’t believe I had recently had heart surgery. I know myself there is NO WAY I could have worked in any capacity at 3 weeks! However I am proud that I pushed myself some times and just rested on others, you should do as your body dictates. Listen to your body. Also I still even NOW have odd days when I just feel wiped out but also days when I can move mountains! I am 50 years old a former smoker and was overweight for many years but I have ALWAYS walked everywhere. So I was a ‘fit unhealthy person!” .Today its 5 months since my surgery and I feel great have more energy and am almost back to my previous walking abilities.
I have seen people months later back to running their marathons and others still facing challenges. It also depends on the success of the surgery. I still have fluid round my heart and a few ‘imperfections’ I know of others who have needed further surgery down the track There is no ‘one size fits all’ recovery answer really. One would hope going through such a big surgery the end result would be text book but the fact is it isnt and some will heal fast, some slow , some will be affected mentally by what they went through others see it as a mere practicality and a glitch in their plans. I think surely that the honest answer would be its different for everyone but the above is a guideline of what to expect. Go at your own pace. Take advice from medical experts who know YOU and your heart history. My surgeon said to me its 90% mental having heart surgery and he was right. I set my mind to things and I did them I also had a couple of days when I cried my eyes out!. Do what is right for YOU.

Adam says on January 16th, 2017 at 9:22 am

Wow! That was a great share!

Love the tips and advice.

Thank you!!!


Shirley Long says on January 16th, 2017 at 8:48 pm

I am 69 years old, and have two valves leaking in the front. I haven’t had to have surgery yet, but if I do what should I expect to feel like and look like the few few days after surgery. Hopefully it never comes to that, but if it does I am just curious. I have heard horror stories so I thought I would ask. Thanks so much.

Cesare DelVaglio says on January 17th, 2017 at 4:12 pm

My quintuple bypass and Aorta valve replacement (a scheduled event) took place in June, 2010. In Monday, walking Tuesday (with 2 units of blood added), out Friday. Told not to lift anything heavier than a gallon of milk. Walked around the kitchen, living room, dining room route about 70 or 80 times a day and used the breath gadget first week. Second week back to work (printing and mailing business), mostly managerial stuff, no lifting….one sneeze caught me halfway by surprise…..ouch!! From week three on, in very good shape, gradually getting back to some lifting.

Wondering hoe long bovine valve will last: says 5 to 10 years, maybe 15-20! Hope so, although I believe they could replace through groin, couldn’t last time because one of the clogged arteries could not be reach through that approach….

Joan Davenport says on January 17th, 2017 at 6:00 pm

I worked with my alternative health practitioner and my nutritionist for several months prior to my surgery so that my body was in pretty good shape for my AVR. I was able to drive 3 weeks after my surgery,,…but I stayed fairly close to home…no long distance drives right away. I started cardio rehab about 2 months after surgery and that was a big help. I was 74 y/o at the time of surgery and spent about 7 days in the hospital and I am still surprised that I was able to function by myself when I came home. I live alone and a few neighbors helped with grocery shopping etc. for the first 2-3 weeks. I did not need pain meds after about the 2nd day in hospital. It’s been about 4+ years since my surgery and just today I had my every four month checkup with my cardiologist and got a good report again….THANKFULLY. He said my valve is still tight with no leaking which is great news. I would say my biggest problem post surgery was getting my lungs back to full function, but I had been a smoker for many years.

Daniel Janosko Sr. says on January 17th, 2017 at 10:19 pm


Kathryn says on January 18th, 2017 at 1:27 am

Shirley, I was 72 when I had my aortic valve replaced. I started cardiac rehab five weeks later. I think the surgery site was beautiful right away. I am not queasy about blood or scars, though. I did not want my picture taken , though. I felt like I had just had surgery and did experience pain, but I did everything the nurses, doctors, patient care techs told me to do. A year later I went on a trip to Europe and I continue to work out at least three days a week. I am grateful to feel so healthy and strong and alert two years later.

Shirley Long says on January 18th, 2017 at 7:53 am

Thank you for the info. I just have heard so many things that it sort of scares me. Especially the pain and all the tubes and machines on a person. Just a big baby I guess. LOL

Chris Keeler says on January 19th, 2017 at 1:28 pm

My first week after leaving the hospital was not so great. I was having terrifying hallucinations from the drug amiodorone (sp). Additionally I developed a severe cough and tons of choking mucus that made breathing while lying down a chore. I started my walking the second week and worked up to a mile in a few days. Thereafter it was the cough that was my issue, which made the chest incision hurt. Turns out the cough was caused by Lysinopril which I had been taking for years, but after the surgery my body didn’t like it any more.
Three months after the surgery I played golf!
Other interesting side effects of the surgery included me vision no longer having astigmatism and also my finger nails, which were cupped, now are bowed out.
I don’t tire easily any more and am much stronger thanks to a gym regimen that I follow.

Chris Keeler says on January 19th, 2017 at 1:33 pm

They are just a nuisance that is temporary for about 3 days or so. I had no pain. The biggest issue was walking around the ward connected to all the gadgets but that, too, shall pass.

Sarathy Brp says on February 28th, 2017 at 9:31 pm

I had cabg on Nov 2015 still I have some or other problems by reading your messages I wil satisfie that I am not the only who is facing problem .Still if I sit for ten minutes I can’t stretch my chest it pains too much I apply some ointment it will be good for ten minutes since yesterday I feel vibrating feeling on the incision of my left leg to tow pls help me dr

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