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Heart bypass surgery

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Heart bypass surgery

Coronary bypass surgery is a common procedure that can dramatically improve the health of your heart.

Key takeaways

2 min read

  • Heart bypass surgery, or CABG, improves blood flow to the heart for people living with coronary heart disease and increases their quality of life. 

  • You may be a candidate for heart bypass surgery if you have symptoms of coronary heart disease and are not a candidate for a coronary angioplasty or a stent procedure. 

  • Preparations for heart bypass surgery start two weeks prior to your operation and involve numerous consultations with you doctor. 

  • There are important things you can do to prepare for your heart bypass surgery and to speed up your recovery after the operation. 

Diagram of the heart and major arteries, illustrating the intricate network of blood vessels within the human cardiovascular system.

Why do people need heart bypass surgery? 

You may need bypass surgery if one or more of your heart’s arteries have become too narrow or blocked and not enough blood can reach your heart muscle. 

Reasons you might need a heart bypass: 

  • Chest pain that does not get better with medications 

  • A previous heart attack, and/or 

  • You have coronary heart disease (CHD) but are not suitable for coronary angioplasty or a stent procedure. 

The benefits of bypass surgery 

Bypass surgery will improve blood flow to your heart muscle and reduce your symptoms of coronary heart disease

In time, you may feel healthier and able to be more active than you were before the surgery. Your risk of further heart problems will also be lower. It is important to look after your heart health for the long term. A bypass may fix the flow to your heart, but plaque can still form in your arteries. 

How to prepare for heart bypass surgery 

Talk to your heart doctor about your questions or concerns. The more you understand, the less worried you will feel. 

If your doctor recommends a heart bypass, they’ll give you lots of information on how to prepare. You may need to attend an information session where you’ll find out more about bypass surgery and how to plan for it. 

If your surgery is booked in advance and isn’t an emergency procedure, you’ll usually have several doctor’s appointments before the operation. This is when you’ll be asked about your health and family medical history. These appointments are important times to ask questions and understand your surgery, how to prepare for surgery, and what to expect afterwards. Bringing a family member or a support person to these appointments is often a good idea so they can help you understand the process and provide you with support. 

Before the operation 

Around two weeks before your surgery, you’ll need to: 

  • Check with your doctor about your medications – you may need to stop taking some of them before the surgery  

  • Have some important tests – these include an ECG, chest X-ray, blood tests, nose and groin swabs, and carotid doppler (an ultrasound of the blood vessels in your neck that supply the brain)  

  • Shower with antibacterial soap – your doctor will recommend one for you 

  • Get your home ready for when you return from hospital 

  • Plan your transport home – you will need to find someone who can collect you from the hospital and help you get home after surgery 

  • Arrange for someone to help with shopping, meals, cleaning and driving after you leave hospital. 

  On the day before surgery: 

  • Ensure you have organised your home or any commitments while in hospital for up to a week 

  • Pack a small bag of essentials, such as toiletries, glasses, and light pyjamas or clothing 

  • Stop eating and drinking from midnight on the night before your surgery if told to do so. 

On the day of surgery: 

  • Shower with antibacterial soap  

  • Remember not to eat or drink anything if told not to do so 

  • Remove any makeup, nail polish and jewellery (dentures can be left in) 

  • A member of the hospital staff will trim the hair on your chest, arms, legs and groin – this is to reduce the risk of infection. 

What happens during heart bypass surgery? 

Heart bypass surgery usually takes between three and four hours. The operation is done under general anaesthetic, which means you will be asleep while it is happening.

To reach your heart, the surgeons will cut along the middle of your chest, through your breastbone.

Arteries or veins removed from your arm, thigh, lower leg or chest will be inserted to bypass the narrowed or blocked heart arteries. This allows the blood to flow more easily to the heart as there is now a ‘detour’ past the blockage. To make the bypass, the surgeon will only remove arm, leg, and chest arteries that have another source of blood flow.

During surgery, our heart will be stopped for a short time. When this happens, you will be connected to a heart-lung machine which will temporarily take over from your own heart and lungs and pump blood to the rest of your body.

Sometimes, the operation can be done through a smaller cut in your chest and without a heart-lung machine. This will depend on how many narrowings you have in your heart’s arteries, and where they are.  

To finish the bypass, the surgeons will use wire or strips of special tape to hold your breastbone together. These don’t need to be removed, but it will take about six to 12 weeks for your breastbone to heal completely.

What happens after bypass surgery? 

After the surgery 

As soon as the operation is over, hospital staff will take you to the intensive care unit (ICU). 

When you first wake up, you may feel confused and find it hard to keep track of time. This is normal and is caused by the surgery and the medicines. You will also likely have a breathing tube in your mouth and a breathing machine connected. The staff will take this breathing tube out as soon as it is safe, but it’s important that you stay calm. Heart surgery patients will have many tubes and wires connected to them for the first two days. Ask your health care team to explain which tubes are for medications or drainage or are wires for monitoring. As you recover, these will be removed.  

After a day or two, you will move to a ward until you are ready to go home. In total, you can expect to be in hospital for between five and seven days. 

Will I be in pain after the surgery? 

You will feel some pain in your chest and can feel quite stiff, but your health care team will give you pain medicines to make you more comfortable. It is very important to stay on top of your pain so that it doesn’t affect your recovery. The goal is to be able to take a deep breath unrestricted by pain.  

Before you leave hospital 

Physiotherapy – you can start to move around and slowly increase your activity levels while you are still in hospital. Hospital staff will show you a routine that you can follow once you are back home. 

Breathing – you will also learn some breathing exercises and coughing techniques that won’t harm your recovery. 

Follow-up care – your heart doctor will book some follow-up appointments. At these appointments you will talk with your doctor about your medications, wound care and physical activity. 

After you leave hospital 

Make sure you take all your medications exactly as your doctor prescribes. Follow their recommendations on diet and exercise, and watch for any complications.

Attending a cardiac rehabilitation program is one of the best ways to recover from your surgery. You will be supported to understand your condition, return to physical activity, and be able to seek advice and support from health professionals.

Your heart doctor will continue to supervise your general heart health. Your first appointment after surgery will usually be four to six weeks after you leave hospital. At this stage, your surgeon or a member of your medical team will check your wound and general progress, and you may have an X-ray.

Normal recovery from heart surgery takes four to six weeks, but it can take up to three months for a full recovery. During this time, your arm and leg muscles will start to strengthen and you can slowly return to your usual activities.

While your breastbone is healing, you shouldn’t lift, push or pull anything heavy. Your nurse will show you the safest ways to lift and move your body, including rolling and sitting up in bed.

Important things to know about your recovery 

As well as the physical effects of a heart bypass on your body, it is normal to experience emotional and thinking difficulties for the first few weeks or months after surgery. 

Many people say they have trouble concentrating and remembering things. You may find you have a poor appetite and changes in taste. It is also common to have strange dreams and changed sleeping habits during the recovery period.

Many people feel angry, upset, down or hopeless after heart surgery, and this is so common that it has a name, the cardiac blues. Usually, the cardiac blues gets better with time over the first two months. Remember to stay active and communicate how you are feeling with your support network. If you find that are still feeling down or anxious and have lost interest in doing things after two months, it is very important you visit your doctor and seek help. You may be experiencing depression or anxiety, which is common after heart surgery, but getting help is vital.

Read more about feelings and emotions after a heart attack.

Once you have recovered, your long-term health and wellbeing depends on you being willing to make healthy changes to your lifestyle. This includes improving your diet, quitting cigarettes, and exercising regularly.

For more information about heart bypass surgery, speak to your heart doctor, surgeon, nurse or health worker.

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Last updated17 February 2021