Returning to Everyday Tasks after Sternotomy

What is Sternotomy?

A sternotomy is a surgical procedure that involves making an incision through the sternum (or breastbone) to access vital organs in the thoracic cavity. This incision is then closed with sutures. This is common in open heart surgeries such as valve replacement or bypass surgeries.

Recovery after a full sternotomy may take months and involves healing of the sternum tissues and gradual strengthening of surrounding muscles. Following your cardiologist and/or surgeon advice regarding lifting restrictions and movements and attending cardiac rehabilitation in the first 2-3 months post sternotomy can aid in your recovery.

Some general precautions in the first 2-3 months post sternotomy include:

  • Avoid heavy lifting and/or lifting anything that makes you strain
  • Use both arms evenly
  • Avoid strenuous activities
  • Avoid excessive and/or rapid one arm movements

But what next?

Some people find the leap from cardiac rehabilitation exercises to their normal physical activities prior to surgery be very daunting or they find they are not ready yet even if the sternum may seem stable.

Therefore seeking advice from an Accredited Exercise Physiologist on gradual resumption of activities, particularly in that 3-9 month time frame after the sternotomy procedure, can assist in a safe return to pre-surgery activities and reaching your goals.

Exercise Physiologists can prescribe exercises that are specific to your goals whilst strengthening upper limb muscles and gradually exposing the body to increasing sternal pressures in a safe and supervised environment.

This gradual resumption is very important particularly, if you are looking to return to tasks that put pressure on the breastbone such as

  • Heavy pushing and pulling
  • Riding a Push Bike
  • Using Power tools / manual labour tasks
  • Swimming

Gradual exercise progressions regarding the sternum are also important if you a looking to move away from using both arms evenly to single arm movements repetitively, particularly if you are returning to occupations that rely on such movements such as cleaner, gardener, or chef etc.

It is also common for patients to experience pain in other areas other than where the chest incision is made and hence further guidance from our Exercise Physiologists on pain management   and exercise therapy can assist in putting you in the right direction to achieve your goals.


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