Physical Therapy Can Aid Recovery After Invasive Chest Surgery
Recuperating from invasive chest surgery can require more than a follow-up visit with a doctor to assess the incision site and heart function. Some patients who have these procedures also need help getting over its associated aches and pains.
In these cases, physical therapy can help people work through their discomfort as their bodies heal from surgery.
For example, patients who have had open-heart surgery, like a bypass, could benefit from getting physical therapy. In some cases, it can speed up the recovery process and help patients resume physical activity more quickly.
“Joints and muscles of the chest and upper back can get strained during open-heart surgery, and that is frequently why people have the pain that they do,” said Doug Peters, physical therapist at Columbus Community Hospital’s Rehabilitative Services.
Peters works with patients who have gone through invasive chest surgeries, but not as many as one would think. He said much of the information online about rehabilitation after open-heart surgery focuses on cardiac rehab, which centers on a person’s cardiovascular system. Physical therapy can be overlooked.
However, physical therapy is an important component in recovery after surgery, in part, because it helps people feel more comfortable and confident returning to physical activity after the procedure.
“I’m sure a lot of people who are two or three months out of surgery are afraid to move. It’s a very invasive surgery. The doctor might tell them what they can or can’t do, but they might still be afraid,” Peters said.
Working with a physical therapist can help a patient move past those concerns. A physical therapist will come up with an individualized plan for each patient to address pain management, healing and the strengthening of muscles and joints.
“We want patients to get back to their normal lifestyle with confidence,” Peters said.
For example, one recent patient of Peters’ was an older man who had open-heart surgery. The patient was about two months out of having his procedure and tried to mend a fence on his farm. The simple act of pulling on fence wire caused him a lot of pain.
“He said he barely did anything but it hurt him so bad using those chest muscles,” Peters said. “The pain was all muscle related.”
After visiting with his doctor, the man came to CCH’s Rehabilitative Services and worked with Peters for six weeks doing a specially designed program that combined stretches and strengthening exercises for the muscles of his chest and upper back.
“We started with very simple, very basic moves. After a little while, the patient felt better and moved better,” Peters said.
Now, the man is able to farm like he did before.
“He talked the other day about carrying a 50-pound sack of seed or feed. He’s still out there helping the family harvest. He is able to use his arms more and be more active,” Peters said.
In most cases, a patient who had invasive chest surgery can start getting physical therapy after the sternum is well healed, which is usually in about two months. Typically, they work with a physical therapist two to three times a week for one or two months. They also are given an exercise program they can do at home.
Each patient is treated on a case-by-case basis to provide the best treatment in his or her recovery process.
“A lot of times people think physical therapy only involves lifting a lot of heavy weights or a lot of stretching. That’s not true. We meet the person where they are and then see what their needs are and go from there,” Peters said.
Much of the therapy for patients recovering from open-heart surgery focuses on working with the muscles of the chest to stretch out those tissues, as well as strengthening the muscles in the upper back. Improving range of motion is also a common goal.
“For this type of surgery, we need to start very gently. We don’t want to strain too much because they will be very sore and then we will have other problems because of that. We want to start gently and gradually improve,” Peters said.
By utilizing physical therapy, patients who have had invasive chest surgery can feel less pain and return to an active lifestyle.
“Everyone is different. Some people will have the surgery, but may not need physical therapy. For those who do have issues, we want to help them and let them know that having physical therapy is an option,” Peters said.