What Is A Sternotomy Incision And How Painful Is It?

Question: What is a sternotomy incision and how painful is it?

Answer: A sternotomy incision is the usual incision that we use for heart surgery; the customary incision, the one that we use most of the time. Now, while no one looks forward to a surgical incision, you should feel comforted that this incision is -- relatively speaking -- not uncomfortable. The incision itself is through the flat bone in the middle of the chest that holds the ribs together. And we do that with a saw to open the bone, and then wire it back together so it's quite solid.

Now, incisions are painful when you move, and muscles are divided and so on. There are no muscles in the midline where the sternum is, so we don't divide any muscles at all when we're making the sternotomy incision.

Most patients say that they're surprised that the sternotomy incision really is not very uncomfortable. In fact previously, people have told me that the leg incision where we harvest the vein is more painful than the chest incision. Now currently, we take the vein through very small incisions and use an endoscope so the leg incision is not very painful either.

But the sternotomy incision, in general, is very well tolerated, and patients are surprised a day or two after surgery that they really are not having very much discomfort at all from it. So if you're looking forward to sternotomy, if you're going to need to have heart surgery in the future, you shouldn't be too frightened by the painfulness of the incision.

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