Pillow Talk: Tips for Maintaining (Some) Physical Comfort After Heart Surgery

Open heart surgery is the enemy of physical comfort. If you’re about to have surgery (or have just recently rolled off the operating table), welcome to the wonderful world of feeling like a train wreck 24/7. While there will be pain medications — many of them — to take care of the big stuff, they won’t fix everything. Some things will still hurt, some quite unexpectedly. Coughing. Sneezing. Lying flat. Lying on your side. Even hiccups, of all the stupid things in the world. Luckily, there is something you can do about it.

The secret? Pillows. Lots and lots of pillows. The more, the merrier. But not just any pillows, dear readers — during your pillow shopping spree keep in mind that there are four types in particular you should be scouting around for.

The Heart Pillow

The epitome of post-surgery comfort — and safety. The ideal heart pillow is about as wide as your own chest, no longer than your abdomen, and very firm. Its purpose is to protect your sternum from trauma while it’s healing. After open heart surgery it takes around four to six months (or even longer in some cases) for your incision to heal and your bones to fuse back together, and in the meantime very serious damage can occur if you don’t take appropriate precautions. Rapid chest movements like those involved in coughing, sneezing, and hiccuping can hinder the healing process and damage, or even separate, the bone. Since a cast would be impractical, to say the least (you do need to breathe, after all), a heart pillow is the next best thing. Pressing it tightly to your chest helps to keep your sternum as still as possible, minimizing your chances of injury.

Photo (c) Kim Berkley 2015

In lieu of a pillow patients are advised to cross their arms tightly across their chest and press hard. While it’s certainly better than doing nothing at all, this method is just not as effective as using a pillow (and much more uncomfortable). I was lucky enough to be issued my very own heart pillow by my hospital — a team of local volunteers sews them and donates them for patients’ use — and during the first couple of months it and I were as inseparable as Siamese twins. If your hospital will not provide you with one, be sure to try and secure one before your procedure (or as soon as possible after). You’ll be thankful you did, especially if your surgery takes place anytime near flu season.

The Head Pillow(s)

If you sleep, chances are you own at least one bed pillow for sleeping on. However, if you only have the one, do yourself a favor and buy it some new friends. When you first come home after surgery you likely won’t want to lie flat for a good while — gravity seems to pull extra hard on you during this time, and it is not a pleasant sensation. Many people sleep in recliners or on the couch for the first few weeks, but one day you’ll probably want to return to your bed.

That blessed day will come much sooner if you prepare ahead of time. Propping yourself up on multiple pillows — around three or four — mimics the vertical support provided by a chair or those lovely adjustable hospital beds, but it’s much more comfortable, and comforting, to be able to sleep in your own bed. What kind doesn’t really matter, as long they’re the kind you prefer.

Photo (c) Kim Berkley 2015

Beware of cat burglars burgling your comfy zone when you’re not looking.

The Butt Pillow

That’s right. A cushion for your keister. In the beginning stages of your recovery you’re going to be doing a lot of sitting, and trust me when I say it can downright suck to be stuck in the same position day after day for hours on end. Walking (which you should be doing anyway) alleviates this somewhat, as does lying down once you’re able, but beware of moving around too much in your seat trying to get comfy. When I got home I grew restless after the first few days and, without realizing it, I often slid up and down in my recliner while watching TV, trying (unsuccessfully) to shift my weight and keep from getting stiff and uncomfortable. I didn’t realize how big a mistake this was until I discovered the skin around my tailbone area (where most of my weight was resting because of the way I tended to curl up in the chair) was red, raw, peeling and even a bit bruised.

The bottom line (pun intended)? A pillow won’t save you entirely from post-surgery bum discomfort, but it certainly helps. (So does having some sort of rapid healing or pain relieving cream or gel — like aloe gel — on hand if your skin is as sensitive as mine. Just be sure to double check it with your doctors before using it.) The best pillow for the job would be a very, very soft one — think of fluffy cumulonimbus clouds, or the Snuggle Bear, or unicorn hair. I repeat: soft.

The Side Pillow

While not necessarily essential, this fourth and final item for your list is highly recommended to anyone post-surgery, but particularly to those who enjoy lying on their sides, either to sleep or watch TV. Much like trying to lie flat on your back, lying on your side in the early stages of post-surgery recovery feels a bit like an overweight person taking a seat on your rib cage. This is not ideal.

Thankfully, after a few weeks this gets better. A few weeks, it turns out, feels a lot longer than it sounds, but happily you can speed up the process slightly with — you guessed it — a side pillow. If you’re not picky (or trying to shop conservatively), one of your extra head pillows can serve this purpose decently enough. A full-length body pillow might also be a good choice, as they are supposed to be fairly ergonomic.

Photo (c) Kim Berkley 2015

Personally, I would suggest a neck pillow. Not one of those curvy ones that curls around your neck like a cat or scarf, mind you, but one of the straight, cylinder-shaped ones filled with bean-bag type materials. The reason is this: a neck pillow is small enough and just the right shape for draping one arm over comfortably while lying on your side. The whole purpose of the side pillow is to keep your chest from feeling crunched together and tight by keeping your arms and shoulders comfortably spaced apart. A too-big or too-small pillow would be just as useless as no pillow at all. Like Goldilocks, you’ll do best to stick to a medium-sized option. In a pinch, a stuffed animal of roughly the same size as a neck pillow would probably also do the trick. Bonus nostalgia points if it’s one of your own!

So there you have it, folks. More pillows = more comfort = greater ease of recovery. I am not promising you the moon nor stars here, nor would I venture to claim this is the end-all, be-all of heart surgery advice. But sometimes the devil really is in the details, and little things like having a couple of comfy pillows on hand can make all the difference, particularly when you’re having a bad day. And there will be bad days, that much is inevitable. When one sneaks up on you, just hug your heart pillow tight and remember: it really does get better.


What did you think of the list? Did I cover everything? Be sure to leave any suggestions, questions or concerns in the comments below — and of course, if you liked this post, please feel free to share the link and follow this blog!

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One thought on “Pillow Talk: Tips for Maintaining (Some) Physical Comfort After Heart Surgery

  1. Pingback: Conversations With Older Men: An Unexpected Side Effect of Heart Surgery | Tick Tock Ticker

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