Chest Pain 9 Months After Heart Surgery

I am new to this group and would like to ask if anyone has experienced intense chest pain for as long as 9 months or more after open heart surgery. I am 75 years old and had valve repair surgery in July of 2008. The pain in my chest is centered around the area of the incision but I feel it across the entire chest, such that I have difficulty rotating my upper body, driving a car, picking up something as heavy as a gallon of milk, and opening the refrigerator door. It's both a feeling or sense of tightness (like my chest was stitched back too tightly) but, also, like a block of wood inside my chest that, at some time, could fall out or collapse. The pain has not been relieved by either Aleve, Naprosyn, or Lidoderm patches (all prescribed by my cardiologist) or 12 weeks of cardio rehab and 6 sessions of pain management therapy. In fact, it feels like the pain has been getting worse over the past few weeks. My cardiologist says there is nothing he can do for me. But something feels terribly wrong inside of me, and I am struggling to come to grips with the prospect of having to live with this overwhelming pain for the rest of my life. Has anyone experienced this? Do you have any ideas based on your own experience or someone else's what might be causing this?

Thanks in advance for any advice you can offer.

Report post

15 replies. Join the discussion

Please ask your cardiologist to order a CT scan of your sternum. I had triple bypass surgery 12/30/08. 18 days later I had a heart caused by a blood clot and spasm in one of my new bypasses. I felt great at first and the soreness didn't bother me much. I expected it. Then about March I realized the pain and discomfort was not getting better. In fact, the more active I was, the more pain and soreness I had. My cardiologist said it was because of the heart attack - it would take me longer to heal. My family doctor said it was arthritis in my sternum and would get better over time. It didn't. I couldn't do anything with my upper body without quite a bit of pain and discomfort.

I finally went back to my surgeon in April in tears. I told him I could not bear the pain anymore. He patted my hand and said it was probably just mental stress from all I had been through. He did a CT scan "just to put my mind at ease". When I went back for the results we sat in front of the computer and the image of my sternum came up. He scratched his chin and said "Huh". I asked what that meant. He pointed to a black gap at the top of my sternum. It turns out the top 1/2 inch of my sternum never fused completely. There was a callous in the gap that was rubbing every time I moved. Turned out my pain had been very real indeed.

The only option to correct it was to go back in, cut the sternum back open, file down the edges and rewire it. Too risky and I was not about to do that. He admitted that it would take months for the sternum to complete fusing. He estimated between 6 and 9 months post op. It took almost a full year. I ended up going to a legitamate pain mangement clinic. They were able to put me on a synthetic narcotic that allowed me to get my life back without becoming addicted.

My pain had a real cause behind it. X-rays did not show the gap for some reason - probably, the surgeon said, because of the callous in the gap. You don't have to live in pain. Keep pushing until you find out what is causing it.

Take care -

Report post

Hello Willa and welcome!

I'm so sorry to read of this ongoing pain and distress.

<<"..But something feels terribly wrong inside of me, and I am struggling to come to grips with the prospect of having to live with this overwhelming pain for the rest of my life. .." >>

When a patient says 'something feels terribly wrong inside of me', the condition needs immediate attention. This much pain is not normal. Nobody, especially a heart patient, should be expected to endure this kind of 'overwhelming pain', not in this day and age. It might even be something relatively minor, but the stress alone of not knowing what the heck's going on inside there can be devastating.

You may have to call 911 and go into the E.R. in order to be taken seriously, as much as you may not want to do this. But you know your body. You have to be your own best advocate here.

Please go today, without delay, and then keep us posted.


Report post

Yes, Yes! My friend who had a valve replaced had pain for a long long time. It wasn't her sternum, but it often is. Please do get them to check it out!

Report post

Thanks very much for the advice, perspectives, and words of support and encouragement. I have recently had a chest CT scan done. The radiologist's written report was inconclusive, but I am planning to go back to my cardiologist with the actual scan/images shortly and will bring up the ideas you've mentioned--especially the sternum concern.

Report post

It was been 2 1/2 years since my open heart. I still get tightnesss or a drawing feeling when I exercise, rake the lawn, vaccuum, etc. Get it checked out, but for me it is nothing but one of the many side effects from the surgery.

Report post

Willa, a very good friend of mine went through this and something WAS wrong. For a cardiologist to say there is nothing I can do for you is a red flag to me-for another opinion. Good luck.

Report post

I had unbelieveable pain which was along the arthritis lines, relieved by masseur at a pain clinic, probably due to shifting body mechanics as the scar tissue pulled in.. it kept coming back every few months or so and seems to have subsided finally (it's been two years since surgery). I had a lot of left arm pain (probably referred) and that is not that unusual after chest surgery.

Your pain sounds different to me, though. Mine was in several places, varied from time to time and really did seem to be related to inflammation. I also knew it wasn't my heart somehow.

I would agree with the others that you need to persue further medical assistance.
Best, Penny

Report post

I had mitril valve repair done 2 years ago at 42. I had on going pain in the same region, at the incision site and radiating out. After a year of my Dr. trying to figure out that I wasn't crazy, I went back to my surgeon and he determined that the wire they put your sternum back together was causing the pain and irritation. He removed the bottem 3 wires and the pain was greatly reduced. I still have pain but nothing like it was. I have pain in my shoulders and back also that wasn't there pre surgery. I had the same feeling as willa, "that something is not right". I was sent to a therapist who asked me in a very condescending manner if I thought maybe they left a sponge in me or maybe left a clamp. I left there in tears. Dont give up trying to find out what is wrong.You have to put your foot down with the Dr's and make them keep looking for the source of your pain. I have found most open heart patients that I have met and know have ongoing pain of some degree. Good Luck and know that there is a large group of us out here in the "zipper club"

Report post

Thanks for sharing. I did go back to my surgeon and he advised to have the wires removed, since they are bent-up and close to the surface of the skin. I have also sought an independent opinion from a different cardiac surgeon. Both heart surgeons concur that based on the chest CT scan the sternum has indeed healed. But, the second surgeon differs on whether removing the wires would help with the pain. Does anyone have any idea why or if the sternum wires might cause pain not just at the surface near the incision, but also this sinking, shifting sensation inside the chest?

Thanks again very much.

Report post

Sandra and Willa~
I had valve replacement surgery in Nov., 2007 at age 54. I had worse back pain than chest pain right after surgery, and was finally told that was quite common due to the torque on the spine and ribs when the sternum is cut and forced open for the hours the surgery takes to complete. In addition, I had 5 cracked ribs, which is also common due to the torque and pressure. I still have back and chest pains, and was told by several doctors that it is not that uncommon to have to have the wires removed due to ongoing irritation. There is a constant sense of soreness, rubbing and irritation right under the incision site, with a sense of deep soreness all across my chest area. When I bend over, it feels like muscles or tissues are pulling away from the sternum. I have been contemplating going forward with removal of the wires. I kept hoping the condition would eventually improve. I'm usually a very fast healer, so this was a real suprise for me; one for which the cardiologists don't seem to be preparing their patients.

Report post

wow some one that is 42 my main valve exploided and did not know what was happening it has been 8 months and sometimes i have constant pain on my right side of the incision. does the sternum take this long to heal.

Report post

I hear you on the sternum pain....I am 3 months out from valve replacement and have more sternum p[ain than I expected, especially at the top of the incision.

A very wise person here suggested I get my medical records when I complained that I didn't feel my cardio told me everything.

Imagine my surprise when they came today and I found out I got "several plates to additionally reinforce the sternum due to being a second sternotomy and my being a large woman".

I was never told this and perhaps that is the source of the pain.

Have you ever read through your records?

Report post

Willa... I have been looking for someone who shared my experience. Triple bypass 9 years ago and for 7 years I have had a burning and tightening in my chest. I take pain killers and have tried at least 10 assorted doctors and specialists and pills to reduce the pain. This week I found this site and a few people have shared their stories about wires that are touching your nerves and I am now convinced that is my problem and I am getting on the phone Monday morning to find out if I am a candidate for having them removed. Perhaps this is what is happening to you. Do NOT give up, I have tried so many things and it may have taken me years to at last have someone say they had the same thing happen to them. I spend many nights thinking that there is something wrong with my heart and I get really frightened when the pain is horrible. It plays tricks with your mind. Good luck, Susan

Report post

The nerves take years to regenerate sometimes causing pain, tingling, stinging, pulling, burning, etc. I had my triple bypass 9 and a half years ago and still get pulling and pain when I lift things.

Get yourself checked out to be sure nothing else is wrong though.

Report post

I had surgery July 2009 to replace my ascending aorta. In March 2010 I really started to kick up my cardio workouts and felt some chest tightness in the days following my workouts. It wouldn't hurt during the workout, but after, especially when I would lie down. It would fade in a couple of days and I'd do it again. When it got to be real pain, and too uncomfortable to try to go to bed at night, I called my cardiologist, had an MRI, which was negative... That was last week and I have been afraid to go work out again. I feel like I have been punished for trying to get into shape. I am 35 and have a young child and want more. I suspected scar tissue remodeling or the like, but the doctors never said boo about the possibility of any discomfort 8 and 9 months out. Even after complaining. After finding these stories here, I feel better knowing this is common. I can live with it if I can moderate my activity and know it isn't something fatal. Thank you, all of you, for sharing.

Report post

This discussion is closed to replies. We close all discussions after 90 days.

If there's something you'd like to discuss, click below to start a new discussion.

Things you can do

Support WomenHeart

Help WomenHeart reach its goals and support people like yourself by making a donation today.

Donate to  WomenHeart

Discussion topics

Heart health links and resources

The SCAD Ladies Stand Up -- Read the special report

Community leaders


The information provided by this online support network through WomenHeart: The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease and Inspire is for general informational purposes only. The information is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. If you are ill, or suspect that you are ill, see a doctor immediately. In an emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. WomenHeart: The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease never recommends or endorses any specific physicians, products or treatments for any condition.