Early Cardiac Rehab as Effective as Later Start After Sternotomy

Marilynn Larkin

June 28, 2022

Cardiac rehabilitation (CR) started 2 weeks after sternotomy for a cardiac procedure was noninferior to usual care, in which CR starts 6 weeks after the procedure, with a greater improvement in 6-minute walk test outcomes, a randomized study suggests.

There was no difference in adverse events between groups, although the researchers point out that the study was not powered specifically for safety outcomes.

"Cardiac surgical techniques have evolved significantly over the last 60 years, leading to improved survival and shorter hospital stays," Gordon McGregor, PhD, University of Warwick, Coventry, United Kingdom, told theheart.org | Medscape Cardiology. "However, sternal precautions and rehabilitation guidelines have not changed accordingly. There has never been a guideline based on empirical evidence to support rehabilitation professionals working with cardiac surgery patients after median sternotomy."

"By adopting a progressive individualized approach," he added, "cardiac surgery sternotomy patients can start cardiac rehabilitation up to 4 weeks earlier than current guidance, and thus potentially complete their recovery sooner."

Results of the Early Initiation of Poststernotomy Cardiac Rehabilitation Exercise Training (SCAR) study were published online June 22 in JAMA Cardiology.

In the study, McGregor and colleagues randomly assigned 158 patients (mean age, 63 years; 84% men) to 8 weeks of 1-hour, twice-weekly supervised CR exercise training starting 2 weeks (early) or 6 weeks (usual care) after sternotomy.

The primary outcome was change in the 6-minute walk test distance from baseline to 10 or 14 weeks after sternotomy, respectively, and 12 months after randomization.

For usual care, training followed British standards: a warmup with light cardiovascular and mobility exercises; continuous moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise; a cooldown; functional exercises using resistance machines and free weights; and upper-body exercises designed to prevent sternal and leg wound pain and complications.

There are no specific outpatient CR exercise guidelines for early CR, so study participants followed an individualized exercise program for the first 2 to 3 weeks after surgery, starting with light mobility and moderate-intensity cardiovascular training when they could do those exercises with minimal discomfort. They then progressed to current British standards, as per usual care.

Forty patients were lost to follow-up, largely because of the pandemic; about half the participants in each group were included in the primary analysis.

Early CR was not inferior to usual care, the authors write. The mean change in 6-minute walk distance from baseline to completion of CR was 28 meters greater in the early group than in the usual-care group, and was achieved 4 weeks earlier in the recovery timeline.

Secondary outcomes (functional fitness and quality of life) improved in both groups and between-group differences were not statistically significant, indicating the noninferiority of early CR, the authors note.

Safety Not Proven

There were more adverse events in the early group than in the usual-care group (58 vs 46) and more serious adverse events (18 vs 14), but fewer deaths (1 vs 2).

Although there was no between-group difference in the likelihood of having an adverse or serious adverse event, McGregor acknowledged that the study was "not powered specifically for safety outcomes." He noted that "there is the potential to run a very large multination definitive superiority RCT with safety as the primary outcome; however, a very large sample would be required."

Meanwhile, he said, "we can say with some degree of certainty that early CR was likely as safe as usual-care CR. In the United Kingdom, we work closely with the British Association for Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation and the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Cardiovascular Rehabilitation, who will incorporate our findings in their guidelines and training courses."

Questions Remain

Asked by theheart.org | Medscape Cardiology to comment on the study, John Larry, MD, medical director of cardiology and cardiac rehabilitation, the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center East Hospital, Columbus, said: "For those under time pressure to return to work, [early CR] could be an advantage to allow more rehab time and improved stamina prior to their return-to-work date."

That said, he noted, "we typically delay any significant upper-body training activities for 8 to 10 weeks to avoid impact on healing of the sternum. Thus,…starting sooner would limit the amount of time a patient would have to engage in any upper-body resistance training. Many lose upper body strength after surgery, so this is an important part of the recovery/rehab process."

Matthew Tomey, MD, director, cardiac intensive care unit, Mount Sinai Morningside, New York City, also responded to a request for comment from theheart.org | Medscape Cardiology. He advised "caution" when interpreting the findings, stating that "there was no evident difference in the primary outcome measure of functional capacity by 14 weeks, and the trial was not designed to directly assess impact on either social functioning or economic productivity."

"I would be interested to [see] more comprehensive data on safety in a larger, more diverse sample of postoperative patients," he said, "as well as evidence to indicate clear advantage of an earlier start for patient-centered outcomes specifically after cardiac surgery."

"Perhaps the greatest challenges to full realization of the benefits of CR in practice have been gaps in referral and gaps in enrollment," he added. "It is incumbent upon us as clinicians to counsel our patients and to provide appropriate referrals."

The study was supported by the Medical and Life Sciences Research Fund and the Jeremy Pilcher Memorial Fund. No conflicts of interest were reported.

JAMA Cardiol. Published online June 22, 2002. Abstract

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