Precautions related to midline sternotomy in cardiac surgery: a review of mechanical stress factors leading to sternal complications

Eur J Cardiovasc Nurs. 2010 Jun;9(2):77-84. doi: 10.1016/j.ejcnurse.2009.11.009. Epub 2010 Jan 3.


Background: After midline sternotomy patients are instructed on activity precautions to avoid sternal wound complications. We questioned how restrictive these precautions must be, since they can lead to a postoperative decrease in quality of life.

Aims: To identify mechanical stress factors causing sternal instability and infection in order to create evidence based guidelines for activity following sternotomy.

Methods: Literature review.

Results: No evidence was found to support weight limitation regarding activity, as long as the upper arms are kept close to the body and activity is within a pain-free range.

Recommendations: Avoid stretching both arms backwards at the same time (10 days); loaded activities should be done with the elbows close to the body (eight weeks); only move arms within a pain-free range; use leg rolling with counterweighing when getting in and out of bed; when coughing cross the arms in a "self-hugging" posture; supportive bra or vest is recommended when breast cup>or=D, body mass index>or=35 or frequent cough.

Conclusion: This study provides insights into mechanical stress factors acting upon sternum and the overlying skin. RECOMMENDATIONS on activity precautions based on these finding have a patient supportive approach focusing on possibilities and not restrictions.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cardiac Surgical Procedures / nursing*
  • Humans
  • Perioperative Nursing / methods*
  • Postoperative Complications / nursing*
  • Postoperative Complications / prevention & control
  • Sternotomy / adverse effects
  • Sternotomy / nursing*
  • Sternum / physiology
  • Stress, Mechanical