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 - Northwestern Memorial Hospital - Chicago


Also known as a median sternotomy, it is a surgical incision that allows access to the heart, thymus and lungs for such procedures as:

  • Lung surgery
  • Biopsy or removal of tumors in the center of the chest (mediastinum), most commonly thymoma
  • Coronary artery bypass surgery
  • Heart valve surgery
  • Heart transplant
  • Correction of congenital heart defects

The surgeon will make an incision down the middle of your chest and through your breastbone (sternum). Often mistakenly referred to as open heart surgery, this incision will allow your surgeon to view and operate inside the center of your chest (mediastinum), in the space between your lungs.

During Surgery

Once you arrive in the operating room, general anesthesia is given. It begins with IV medicine and includes breathing anesthetic gases mixed with oxygen.

You will not be aware of the surgery or your surroundings. After you are asleep, a breathing tube is placed into your windpipe to help you breathe during surgery. This is why some patients have a slight sore throat for a day after surgery. A tube is also placed in your bladder to drain urine.

You will be positioned comfortably and the surgeon will carry out the surgery. After it is done, a tube is inserted into the chest and connected to a container. The tube will drain fluid from the chest. These tubes are typically removed between two and five days after the operation.

After Surgery

You may spend one or two nights in the intensive care unit, although some patients may go directly to a regular floor room. You will be asked to walk several times every day and perform your breathing exercises to keep your lung expanded and workling optimally. This also helps prevent pneumonia or collapsed lung.

You will stay in the hospital between two and seven days depending on your condition and the reason for your operation. Once you are discharged from the hospital, you will be given specific instructions regarding your activity and restrictions. In particular, exercises that involved the chest muscles are to be avoided for several weeks to allow the sternum (breastbone) to heal properly.

At Home

After surgery, your breastbone needs to be protected to allow it to heal. This means no heavy lifting for 4 to 6 weeks after surgery. The therapist in the hospital will work with you on ways to move and perform normal activities to limit stress on the bone.

Most patients find that they are back to their usual routine within 6 weeks after surgery. Talk with your doctor before returning to work or driving. The date you return to work will depend on the nature of your work and its demands.

Most patients may resume driving when they are no longer taking pain medicine and can react to sudden changes in driving conditions promptly.

Last UpdateJanuary 23, 2012