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Beyond the birds and the bees: Sex and heart disease

Heart conditions don’t have to end your sex life

CVC birds beesIt’s a question that University of Michigan exercise physiologist Theresa Gracik occasionally hears during cardiac rehabilitation with heart attack survivors, “Is sex okay after a heart attack?”

If patients can do a minimum of exercise, sex is usually safe, she says. Studies show patients wish their doctors would say so, and leading heart organizations recently urged physicians to be ready to counsel patients about sex after a cardiac event.

“Sexuality is a part of who we are, and done privately and respectfully, many patients do want to talk about how that part of their lives may be impacted by heart disease,” says Gracik.

Counseling should address topics such as when to resume sex, specific methods and recommended positions and the role of intimacy without sex. For instance, patients with a newly implanted heart device should avoid sexual positions that put pressure on their chest.

“Partners are often more cautious and overprotective of the heart patient. They’re worried that sexual activity will trigger another cardiac event,” she says.

It is important to talk through those fears with each other. If fear is getting in the way of intimacy, we can encourage them to ask their physician for advice, she says. Although this is a sensitive matter, physicians can counsel them or refer them to a specialist.

Heart medications can affect sex drive and function in both men and women. Patients should talk to their healthcare provider before stopping any medications, according to the consensus statement published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation.

A healthcare provider can determine if sexual problems are caused by the drug or an underlying condition such as depression. Some medications used to treat erectile dysfunction are dangerous to use with heart medications so it is important to check with their physician.

Physical activities such as brisk walking may be suggested for some heart patients before resuming sexual activity. If patients can manage a two to two-and-a-half minute treadmill walk, sexual activity should be fine for them.

“Sex is good for a person’s mental and physical health,” she says. “ After recovering from a heart attack, physical intimacy is important for reassurance of ‘normalcy’ and the health of the relationship.”

Take the next step:

  • For information about the U-M Cardiac Rehabilitation Program, call 734-998-5669.

Frankel-informal-vertical-sigThe University of Michigan Samuel and Jean Frankel Cardiovascular Center is the top-ranked heart and heart surgery program among Michigan hospitals. To learn more, visit our website at umcvc.org.