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Is There Sex After Heart Disease?

Doctors have good news for heart patients hoping to resume sexual activity.
By Karen Springen
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Four years ago, Emmetsburg, Iowa, insurance agent Jim Wirtz, now 65, had triple bypass surgery. Just 10 days later, he was back at the office. Three weeks after that, he received a clean bill of health from his doctors, who said he could do any physical activity -- except shovel heavy snow.

Wirtz took their advice, and he and his wife resumed having intercourse. "Stay in the game, whether it's sex or work," he says. "My own philosophy is, you just better live."

Wirtz is doing what doctors say most heart disease patients can and should do: having sex after heart disease. "We encourage people to stay physically and sexually active," says Vincent Bufalino, MD, a cardiologist and spokesman for the American Heart Association and president and CEO of Midwest Heart Specialists. "They tend to be happier folks."

That's good news for the 80 million Americans with one or more forms of cardiovascular disease, including the 7.9 million who will suffer from a new or recurrent heart attack this year.

There are, of course, some caveats to resuming sex after heart disease. Here's what else people need to know:

Stress Tests

It's important to remember that sex is a workout. So doctors typically tell patients to abstain from sex after heart disease until they can withstand the cardiac workout.

"The concern is if somebody has absolutely no physical activity and then with sexual activity is more physically active than any other time," says Peter Schlegel, MD, chairman of urology at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

But patients who can handle the stairs or walk six minutes on the treadmill should be OK. "They shouldn't have any fear," Bufalino says. "I tell them if you can pass your stress test, you are more than comfortable to do anything you want -- have intercourse, play tennis, or go for a light jog around the block. We shouldn't have intercourse be one of the things we stay away from."

Sex After a Heart Attack or Bypass Surgery

Not surprisingly, some patients, or their partners, are afraid that sex will trigger a heart attack.

"After a heart attack or any kind of heart disease, they're frightened about whether or not they can have a sexual life," says Wei Jiang, MD, an internist and psychiatrist at Duke Health Systems at Duke University.

But the reality is that most patients can have a sexual life. Although you can't jump into sex the day after a heart attack or surgery, most people can resume sexual relations three to six weeks afterward, as long as they are free of chest pain or other complications.

Sex also gives heart disease patients a good incentive to change their lifestyles. "What's bad for the heart is bad for the penis," says Harry Fisch, MD, a urologist at Columbia University, and author of Size Matters. And what's good for the heart -- exercising, maintaining an ideal body weight, not smoking -- is good for the bedroom. "Everything that is healthy for your heart is healthy for your erection," Schlegel says.

If concerns persist, "You may want to seek out a psychologist to speak with about some of your fears," says Susan Czajkowski, PhD, program director for the NHLBI's division of prevention and population sciences. "The goal really is to get people back to as close as possible their normal set of activities and feeling good about themselves and feeling pleasure... Quality of life is important."

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