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Heart Attacks Don't Have to Attack Your Love Life

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Merle Diamond, MD

Aug. 14, 2000 -- For the majority of people, surviving a heart attack doesn't have to spell an end to romance, according to a report in the July issue of The American Journal of Cardiology. But if you're still concerned after your doctor says it's OK, there are some simple ways to get your sex life back on track.

In most cases, "the chance of having a heart attack with weekly sex is less than one in 10,000," says study author James Muller, MD, director of clinical cardiology research at Boston's Mass General Hospital. "In fact, habitual anger is probably a bigger threat," he adds in an interview with WebMD.

To explore the role of sex as a trigger, interviews were conducted with more than 800 heart attack survivors. The data showed that sex-triggered heart attacks were very infrequent -- with or without a history of chronic chest pain. But those who were couch potatoes had a higher risk than those who were active, highlighting the importance of cardiac rehabilitation, the authors suggest.

Regular exercise lowers the risk during sex even more, according to cardiologist Stephen Kimmel, MD, MS, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "By reducing the peak heart rate during sex, aerobic exercise lowers your risk of a heart attack to less than a tenth of a percent," he tells WebMD.

This is good news for the more than half a million adults who survive heart attacks every year in the U.S. Yet studies show that sex stops or decreases for up to 70% of them, even three to four years after the heart attack.

"A lot of heart attack survivors have concerns about sex, but many resume their normal routine by just taking it slow," says Brian Baker, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto who specializes in heart-related issues. "Once you get the OK from your cardiologist, it's really pretty simple."

Baker suggests:

  • Focus on your comfort rather than passion
  • Try not to exert yourself too much at first
  • Start out with non-strenuous positions
  • Limit activity to short periods

Baker tells WebMD that spouses play a big role in heart attack recovery as well. "So if your mate feels apprehensive about sex, try to understand by putting yourself in their shoes."

He advises that partners of heart attack survivors:

  • Get educated about the process of recovery
  • Realize that most patients feel disabled at first
  • Develop their own support system with groups like HeartMates
  • Seek counseling if the marriage was unstable beforehand

Anger is also a normal part of recovery that gradually subsides. "On the other hand, having an angry disposition significantly increases the risk of a future heart attack. Fortunately, you can learn to manage anger more effectively," Baker explains.

To help combat anger:

  • Become aware of the specific cues that set you off
  • As you get angry, ask yourself whether it's justified
  • If so, confront the issue assertively and constructively
  • If not, distract yourself by focusing on something else
  • Learn relaxation techniques like deep breathing and meditation


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