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What to Expect After a Heart Attack

A caregiver's guide to common physical and emotional concerns -- and what you can do to help

By , Caring.com senior editor
95% helpful

Quick summary

When someone suffers a heart attack, it can turn his world upside down. Although a heart attack always presents challenges, keep in mind that every heart attack is different. Symptoms vary, causes differ, and treatment depends on many factors. There's no set timeline for recovery, and a patient may experience all, some, or none of the following issues.

Weakness, fatigue, and shortness of breath

What you can expect:

Nearly all patients recovering from a heart attack will experience weakness, fatigue, and shortness of breath.

What you can do:

As soon as you get the doctor's okay, encourage the patient to get moving. Just getting out of bed, taking a shower, and dressing may be exhausting at first. In the first week, he should begin walking five minutes, five times a day. Although this won't seem like much activity to you, it may be very difficult for him. Acknowledge that he's having a hard time while encouraging him to continue. After a few days, you should notice a significant reduction in fatigue and shortness of breath.

Be patient and encourage him to do the same. He's just been through a major ordeal and you should both expect his recovery to take time.

Within a few weeks, he should be able to begin a modified exercise program. If he has always been fairly sedentary, he may resist this idea. You might motivate him to exercise by helping him set specific, realistic goals; exercising with him; keeping a journal of his progress; getting him moving first thing in the morning; and helping him find exercises he likes to do.

Recognize that it's not all up to you. You can encourage him to exercise, but ultimately he'll have to decide he wants to do it.

Leg swelling

What you can expect:

Leg swelling is very common, especially after bypass surgery. If the surgeon removed veins from the patient's legs for use as bypass grafts, fluid may accumulate in his ankles and lower legs. The swelling can be very uncomfortable and even painful.

What you can do:

While he's resting on the bed or couch, place several pillows under his legs to elevate his feet higher than his heart. Do this for an hour at a time, at least three times a day.

Encourage him to walk as much as he can. Even short jaunts around the house or yard can promote circulation.

Support stockings can minimize swelling. You can buy these at any medical supply store and at some drugstores.

If his leg swelling worsens significantly, notify his doctor immediately. Fluid buildup in the lower extremities is also a symptom of heart failure.

Abnormal heart rhythms and palpitations

What you can expect:

After a heart attack, a patient may develop a slow or abnormal heart rhythm, or he may be at risk for developing one. The abnormal heart rate may improve as the heart muscle heals, or it may be permanent.

What you can do:

Palpitations are the most common symptom of arrhythmia. If the patient is experiencing palpitations, notify his doctor immediately in case treatment is necessary.

Try not to panic. Palpitations can result from too much caffeine, tobacco, and even some over-the-counter medications such as cold and cough remedies. Stress can also be a culprit -- and the person you're caring for has been through an extremely stressful experience.

Learn CPR. Some arrhythmias show up as cardiac arrest, when the heart suddenly stops pumping. By promptly applying CPR, you can keep a patient alive until an emergency medical team arrives. Courses in CPR are available in virtually every city in the United States. Ask his doctor or nurses for information, or contact a local branch of the American Heart Association or the American Red Cross.

Congestive heart failure

What you can expect:

In some cases, a heart attack may damage the heart muscle so much that it can't fully recover. If a patient's heart can no longer adequately pump blood, he may experience shortness of breath, edema (buildup of fluids), and coughing. In some cases, heart failure can improve as the heart muscle heals, but more often the condition is permanent.

What you can do:

Don't panic. Although the term "heart failure" may sound like a death sentence, what it means is that the heart isn't pumping efficiently enough to keep up with the body's needs. But with the proper treatment and lifestyle changes, people with heart failure can lead relatively active lives for many years.

Talk to the doctor about lifestyle changes. The person in your care will need to limit his intake of salt, fluids, and alcohol; exercise lightly; and quit smoking.

Discuss medications with the doctor. Several drugs are useful in treating heart failure. Among other medications, the doctor may prescribe diuretics and/or aldosterone blockers to reduce fluid buildup, digitalis to help the heart contract more vigorously, or ACE inhibitors to make it easier for the heart to pump.