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Heart surgery incision

Is your chest scar a badge of honor or a painful reminder?

Smart Heart Living Bulletin sign upIf you have had open heart surgery. you will most likely have a vertical heart surgery incision down the center of your chest along the breastbone (sternum). In some cases you could have an incision that crosses your chest between the ribs.

Although hospitals are now starting to do less invasive surgeries (and the future looks really promising for minimally invasive heart surgery), a 6 to 10 inch chest incision is still the reality for many.

incision scar

It's normal to wonder what the chest scar will end up looking like and how it will affect you. Scars vary in size and appearance - and people's long term reactions to them vary as well.

Some people feel their surgery scar is a badge of honor and are proud to show it to the world. In her book, From the Heart, Kathy Kastan has a picture of her scar that is included in a series of bypass survivors' images used as a part of a WomenHeart public service campaign.

another incision scar
Others struggle with their altered self-image.Seeing that angry red scar doesn't make them feel very attractive.

Some people, especially women who want to wear low cut dresses or tops, may want use an over-the-counter cosmetic concealer, which can camouflage the scar and its discoloration. Talk to your pharmacy.

The good news - for most the scar (and your reaction to it) fades away. Over time it becomes fainter and fainter.


The sternum (the bone in the middle of your chest), which was opened during your surgery will usually take about 12 weeks to heal. The skin incision heals much faster.

There are many ways to close the external heart surgery incision (staples, dissolving stitches, glue), and each surgeon does things a little differently. Inside, the wires or staples that initially hold your sternum together while it heals will stay in your body permanently.

It's normal to feel discomfort in the form of numbness, deep itchiness, tightness, or a burning sensation during healing.

Your medical team will provide you with instructions for your activities during the early weeks, but while your sternum and heart surgery incision are healing you will need to avoid using your arms excessively, and you will want to avoid lifting anything in excess of 5-10 pounds (2 - 4.5 kilograms). A gallon of milk weighs approximately 8.5 pounds (3.75 kilograms). You should also avoid overhead activities with your hands, such as reaching for items from the top shelf of a closet or cupboard.



One of the complications with a heart surgery incision is infection. If, after returning home, you experience any of the following signs or symptoms, call your doctor. These could be warning signs that your chest wound is infected:

  • A fever higher than 100.4°F (38°C)
  • Rapid heart rate
  • New or worsened pain around your chest wound
  • Reddening, bleeding, or discharge from your chest wound

Protruding staples, especially if you lose a lot of weight can be a problem and will require medical attention.

Chronic pain at incision sites

Some people experience a fair amount of pain with their chest incision. The pain may be from from scar tissue, nerve damage, and the overall insult to the system of being opened up. In addition to dealing with the pain, this can be very worrisome - you're always wondering if it's scar pain or heart pain. If you are experiencing pain, talk it over with your doctor.

Keloid scarring

In most cases, a heart surgery incision will heal without any problems. Sometimes keloids form within scar tissue, which in some cases produce a lump much larger than that of the original scar. A keloid scar is benign, non-contagious, and usually accompanied by severe itchiness, sharp pains, and changes in texture. If you have keloid scarring, talk to your doctor. There is no one simple cure for keloid scars and recurrence after treatment is common.

One option - Scar revision

The final look of your scar depends of many factors, including your skin type and your age. If you are unhappy with your scar, you may want to consider a scar revision. Sometimes a scar revision is necessary to relieve discomfort.

How do you feel about your scar? Send us your story.

Sources: Mayo Clinic, National Heart Lung & Blood Institute.

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