Heart Attack Recovery and Rehabilitation
How long is heart attack recovery?
Recovery from a heart attack (myocardial infarction) can take anywhere from two weeks to three months. When you’re fully recovered, you’ll be able to return to work and your normal routine.
How long your recovery takes depends on many factors, including:
- The severity of your heart attack.
- How quickly you received treatment.
- The type of treatment (it takes longer to recover from open-heart surgery compared with a percutaneous coronary intervention).
- Your overall health and other medical conditions.
Talk to your healthcare provider to learn how long recovery may take for you.
What can I expect during recovery from a heart attack?
Returning home after a heart attack can feel scary or intimidating. You may have questions about what’s normal as you recover, or you may feel nervous being away from your medical care team. Your loved ones may wonder how they can best support you. As you gradually adjust back to your usual routine, you can expect some changes in the following areas:
- Activity level.
- Sexual activity.
Overall, it’s important to find balance between resting and being active as you recover from your heart attack. You need enough rest to heal, but you also need to get back to your normal activities as soon as it’s safe to do so. And exercise is essential for a strong recovery. Your healthcare provider will guide you on this path.
The first week you return home from the hospital, you may feel tired or weak. This is normal. It’s because the heart attack damaged your heart muscle, and your heart needs time to recover. Plus, you’re adjusting to being up and about after a period of bed rest. So, take the time to slowly return to your typical activities.
Here are some tips for your first few weeks back at home:
- Get dressed each morning. You should be able to bathe and take care of your personal hygiene.
- Return to light household chores when you feel ready. These can include folding laundry, cooking, doing light gardening, dusting and washing dishes.
- Pace yourself. Spread out your activities throughout the day. If you feel tired, stop and rest. Schedule the rest of your tasks for another day.
- Limit how often you climb stairs. You may climb stairs at home as part of your daily activity unless your provider tells you to avoid it. Try to arrange your tasks so you don’t have to climb up and down stairs more than a few times per day.
- Don’t lift, push or pull heavy objects right away. Wait until your provider says it’s OK to do so.
- Follow your provider’s instructions. Your provider will tell you when you can drive, return to work and begin more vigorous activities. Follow these guidelines closely. Don’t push yourself too much, too quickly.
- Adhere to additional restrictions, as needed. If you have a heart catheterization after your heart attack, your provider may recommend additional, temporary activity restrictions to prevent bleeding from the site(s) of the catheterization.
Exercises for heart attack recovery
Exercise is an important part of your recovery. The best way to get moving after your heart attack is to join a cardiac rehabilitation program. Cardiac rehab offers a medically supervised setting for exercise and provides you with an individualized plan for safe movement. It also helps you make lifestyle changes to support long-term health. These include eating a healthier diet, managing stress and quitting tobacco use. Talk to your healthcare provider about cardiac rehab programs available to you.
After you complete cardiac rehab, exercise should still be part of your daily routine. If you didn’t exercise much before your heart attack, you may feel overwhelmed by the prospect of exercising regularly. Cardiac rehab can help you gradually add more movement to your day. So, by the time you complete your program, you’ll feel ready to continue on your own. Don’t get discouraged, and just keep in mind that many other people are in your shoes. Small steps add up to significant progress over time.
Diet for heart attack recovery
Eating a heart-healthy diet is important to prevent future complications of cardiovascular disease. While there are many heart-healthy plans available, research supports the value of the Mediterranean Diet for protecting your heart. This diet involves:
- Planning your meals around plant-based foods like fruits and vegetables, beans and whole grains.
- Getting dietary fat from healthy sources like olive oil, avocados and nuts.
- Eating moderate amounts of seafood, lean poultry, eggs and low-fat dairy.
- Limiting red meat (beef, pork, veal and lamb), fried foods and sweets.
Emotions after a heart attack
You may feel depressed, angry or afraid after your heart attack. These are normal responses that usually go away with time as you return to your regular activities. Here are some ways to manage these emotions:
- Get up and get dressed every day. Avoid staying in bed or in your pajamas.
- Go for a daily walk. Be sure to follow the exercise guidelines your provider gives you.
- Return to your hobbies and social activities. Take things slow, though, and limit how many visitors you have over right away. Increase your social activity as you feel up to it.
- Share your feelings. Talk with a friend, family member, counselor or support group.
- Get a good night’s sleep. A lack of sleep can cause you to feel tired or irritable. Avoid napping too much during the day so that you can fall asleep easily at night.
- Join and participate in a cardiac rehab program. Emotional support is one benefit of this guided activity and education program.
- Don’t hesitate to ask questions. Whenever you have questions, ask your healthcare team. Make sure you understand what medical terms mean and what your treatment plan involves. Learning about cardiovascular disease and how to live with it can be empowering. The more you know, the better you’ll be able to make decisions to support your health.
How soon you can return to sexual activity depends on what treatment you’ve received and how you’re feeling overall. If you had open-heart surgery, you need four to six weeks for your breastbone to heal. So, that’s how long you should wait to have sex.
If you didn’t have surgery, you may be able to have sex as soon as two to four weeks after your heart attack. See how you’re feeling and what your energy level is like. If you can climb two flights of stairs without feeling too winded or having chest pain, then you probably have enough energy for sex.
As you adjust back to your usual routine, it may help to:
- Talk openly with your partner about how you’re feeling and your energy level.
- Find other ways to share intimacy with your partner.
- Have sex when you’re rested and physically comfortable.
- Wait at least two hours after a heavy meal before having sex.
- Discuss any concerns with your healthcare provider. Heart disease and some medications may cause sexual dysfunction. If this happens to you, you’re not alone. Talk to your provider so you can get the support you need.
Can your heart fully recover after a heart attack?
Your heart can recover from a heart attack, but it takes time. And the heart attack will likely leave some damage that doesn’t go away, in the form of scar tissue. The amount of heart damage varies according to:
- The timing of treatment. The sooner you receive treatment, the less damage to your heart.
- The location of the blockage. Your coronary arteries supply blood to different areas of your heart. When a blockage happens in one artery, the specific area it supplies becomes deprived of blood. So, the extent of heart damage depends on where the blockage happens, and how much of your heart muscle that artery normally supplies.
It may take about two months for your heart muscle to heal. But the scar tissue that remains can weaken your heart’s pumping ability. Over time, this can lead to heart failure or other complications. Talk to your provider about the extent of heart damage and what you can expect going forward.
Can you make a full recovery from a heart attack?
Many people fully recover and live a long life after a heart attack. However, you should be aware of your risk. About 1 in 5 people age 45 or above have a second heart attack within five years. This means prevention efforts are crucial for lowering your risk and keeping you healthy for a long time to come.
Preventing another heart attack
After having a heart attack, it’s important to do whatever you can to prevent future damage to your heart. Your healthcare provider will give you advice tailored to you and your individual circumstances. Below are some general tips to help you keep your heart healthy.
Take your medications
Your provider will prescribe medications for you after your heart attack to:
- Prevent future blood clots.
- Ease the workload on your heart and improve your heart’s performance and recovery.
- Lower your cholesterol.
If needed, your provider may also prescribe medications that help:
- Treat irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias).
- Lower your blood pressure.
- Manage angina (chest pain or discomfort).
- Treat heart failure.
Your healthcare provider will review your medications with you. Be sure to ask any questions you might have so you understand what you’re taking, the possible side effects and why.
Take all of your medications as prescribed, even if you feel completely healthy. Your medications will help you continue feeling well. If you have any side effects, keep a journal of when they happen and tell your provider.
Finally, write a medications list that you carry with you at all times. The list should include:
- The names of your medications.
- What each one is for.
- How often to take each one, and at what times.
Make lifestyle changes
Some risk factors for coronary artery disease (like age or family history) can’t be changed. But it’s in your power to reduce some of your risk. Talk to your provider about strategies to help you:
- Quit smoking, vaping or using any tobacco products. Tobacco use is one of the most important reversible risk factors for coronary artery disease. Quitting isn’t easy, but it will make a huge difference in your heart health.
- Limit alcohol. Avoid alcohol completely, or limit your intake based on your provider’s guidance.
- Follow an eating plan that lowers your cholesterol levels. Ask your provider or a dietitian if the Mediterranean Diet or another plan is best for your needs.
- Keep a weight that’s healthy for you. When you have excess weight, your heart has to work harder to pump blood to the rest of your body. Excess weight also raises your risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. Ask your provider what your ideal body weight should be, and what you can do to reach it.
- Build exercise into your daily routine. A regular exercise program improves your energy level, lowers your cholesterol, manages weight and relieves stress. Talk to your provider before starting any exercise plan.
- Manage diabetes. Research links high blood sugar to the progression of coronary artery disease. Dietary changes, exercise and medications can help you manage diabetes.
- Manage high blood pressure. High blood pressure can damage the lining of your coronary arteries and lead to coronary artery disease. A low-sodium diet, exercise and medications can help keep your blood pressure in the healthy range.
- Try to relax more often. Relaxation techniques (like yoga, meditation or deep breathing exercises) may help you manage stress or anger. Such emotions raise your risk for coronary artery disease.
See your healthcare provider for regular heart checkups
You’ll have a follow-up appointment four to six weeks after you leave the hospital. Your provider will check the progress of your recovery.
You may need diagnostic tests (like exercise stress tests) at regular intervals. These tests help your provider keep an eye on your heart and notice any new or worsening blockages.
Call your provider — don’t wait for an appointment — if you have these symptoms:
- Angina that becomes more frequent, increases in intensity, lasts longer or spreads to other areas.
- Shortness of breath, especially at rest.
- Irregular heartbeats.
What should I do if I have angina?
Angina is a sign that your heart isn’t getting as much oxygen-rich blood as it needs. Angina can feel like:
- Discomfort, pressure, heaviness or pain in your chest. The feeling may also occur in your back, jaw, throat or arm.
- A feeling of fullness, indigestion or choking.
The exact feeling can vary from person to person, but it’s usually consistent for each individual. In other words, angina will probably make you feel the same each time it happens.
Having angina after you’ve had a heart attack can be frightening. Follow your healthcare provider’s advice on what to do when it happens. Here is some general advice:
- Stop your activity. Sit down and rest.
- If you have nitroglycerin, place one tablet under your tongue and let it dissolve. Or, spray the nitroglycerin under your tongue.
- Wait five minutes.
- If you’re still experiencing angina after five minutes, call 911 or your local emergency number. Do not delay.
- The emergency dispatcher may tell you to chew and swallow an aspirin if there’s no medical reason you should avoid it. That’s because taking an aspirin early during a heart attack may help improve your outcome.
- Don’t drive yourself to the hospital. Often, emergency personnel can begin to give you heart-saving care right away.
Remember, if prescribed, carry your nitroglycerin with you at all times. Keep in mind:
- Nitroglycerin comes in tablet or spray forms.
- You must keep your nitroglycerin in a dark container, and away from heat or moisture.
- Check the expiration date on the container.
- Once you open the container, it has to be replaced after six months.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Recovering from a heart attack takes time, patience and a renewed dedication to your well-being. It can be hard to find time to put your health first when you have countless other responsibilities every day. But a heart attack is a warning sign that your body needs some extra care.
Now is the time to reset and focus on what you can do to support your long-term health. Work with your healthcare provider to develop a heart-healthy plan for your future.
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