Can Your Heart Handle Sex?
Love can cause heartache and even heart break. These are mere figures of speech, but what about people who have had a heart attack or heart surgery? Can someone with heart disease safely have sex?
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the developed world, according to Caroline Arnold in her book Heart Disease. In the United States alone, one person dies of heart disease every 30 seconds and one dies from a heart attack every minute, according to Drs. Michael DeBakey and Antonio Gotto, Jr. in The New Living Heart.
What Exactly Is Heart Disease?
Imagine the heart as a pump. It receives incoming blood from the whole body through the veins, then pumps it back out to the body through the arteries. It regulates its pumping action with a complex arrangement of electrical controllers called pacemakers. The term heart disease can encompass any condition that affects the blood vessels, the pacemakers, or the heart muscle itself.
A significant component of heart disease is atherosclerosis, or narrowing of the arteries. When arteries become clogged with plaque, caused by the build-up of fatty materials, blood flows less freely and the tissues supplied by those arteries die from lack of oxygen and other nutrients. When the tissue being supplied is the heart, the resulting condition is known as a myocardial infarction, or heart attack.
The survival and well-being of heart attack patients depends on how much of the heart muscle dies. The prognosis for people who have had a heart attack is drastically improved over previous decades, due primarily to newer medications and advances in procedures, such as bypass surgery, angioplasty, and coronary stenting.
Physician Advice for People With Heart Disease
Although people can safely resume sexual activity at some point after a heart attack or interventional surgery, only one in four men return to previous levels of sexual activity, according to Dr. Miriam Stoppard in The Magic of Sex. This has more to do with anxiety of the patient and his partner than with physical limitations, according to Dr. Jack Gillis in the The Heart Attack Prevention and Recovery Handbook.
Gillis writes that most patients can safely resume sexual activity 3-8 weeks after a heart attack or bypass surgery. Sexual activity is no more dangerous to the heart than climbing up three flights of stairs. Of course, the patient should consult his or her cardiologist prior to resuming sexual activity.
So many of his patients had questions about sex that Miami cardiologist Dr. Eduardo Chapunoff has written an entire book on this subject, Sex and the Cardiac Patient. In his book, he outlines ten considerations for resuming sex after a heart attack.
Ten Rules for Resuming Sex After a Heart Attack
- Obtain clearance from your doctor
- Watch for cardiac symptoms (fatigue, nausea, shortness of breath)
- Prevent psychologically stressful situations
- Avoid excessive physical demands
- The room should be temperature-controlled and well-ventilated
- Avoid sexual intercourse for at least 2-3 hours after eating or after consuming alcohol
- Take all medications correctly
- Seek medical advice when necessary
- Pay attention to your partner
- Maintain a sense of humor
In The Heart Attack Handbook, Dr. Joseph Alpert has additional recommendations for making sex just as enjoyable as it was before your heart attack. The recommendations apply to both men and women.
- Allow ample time for foreplay.
- Consider just being intimate without intercourse at first, until both partners are comfortable.
- Start with positions that require less energy, such as with your partner on top or the side (lateral) position.
- Reduce sexual activity if you develop a rapid heart rate or rapid breathing lasting longer than 30 minutes after sex. Also reduce sexual activity if you experience severe fatigue or insomnia the day after sex.
- For those heart patients without partners, returning to masturbation is the same as for sex with partners.
Heart Disease Is Not the End of Sex
Most post-heart attack anxiety is from fear of having a heart attack during sex. Only six of 1,000 heart attack sufferers die of heart attacks during sex, and 80% of those are cheating on their partners when they die!
Having a heart attack and/or bypass or other interventional surgery can be a very traumatic experience. But with time, patience, and an understanding and sympathetic partner, there is no reason why people with heart conditions can't enjoy satisfying love lives.
American Heart Association
National Institute on Aging
Canadian Cardiovascular Society
Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada
Last reviewed May 2008 by Craig Clark, DO, FACC, FAHA, FASE
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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