Sex after a heart attack - is it safe?

By Lesley Dobson , Friday 11 May 2012

Heart attacks during sex are factually not all that common and patients should make sure they ask their doctors when they can start making love again, say researchers
Couple with doctorIt is important for doctors to discuss the issue of sex after a heart attack to avoid needless worry

Every year about 111,000 people have a heart attack (acute myocardial infarction or AMI) in England. And while some 25 per cent fewer people are dying from them over the last 10 years, they are still a leading cause of death. So it’s natural to wonder when it’s safe to exert yourself in the bedroom, but some survivors may be denying themselves this pleasure unnecessarily. Despite what we see on TV, having sex isn’t the heart attack risk it’s made out to be. In fact, only about one percent of all heart attacks happen while people are actually making love. And, according to other research, far fewer than one percent of all heart attack survivors die while having sex. So it’s essential to get good advice from your doctor as to how and when best to resume your bedroom activities without either rushing into it or leaving it unnecessarily long.

Researchers at the University of Chicago Medical Centre carried out a survey of 1,879 heart attack patients. Of these about one third of women and under half the men could remember being given advice on when they could safely start having sex again, before leaving the hospital. A year later, just 25 percent of women and 41 percent of men said they’d talked about sex with their doctor since their heart attack. The study is published in The American Journal of Cardiology, and lead author, Stacy Tessler Lindau, associate professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Chicago Medicine, said the study underscores the need for more doctors to talk about sex as a part of resuming normal living, even after a life-threatening event such as a heart attack.

“Doctors need to understand the significant role they play in helping AMI patients avoid needless fear and worry about the risk of relapse or even death with return to sexual activity,” said Lindau, who is a renowned expert on helping women with complex illnesses maintain sexual function.

“Receiving instructions, prior to hospital discharge, about resuming sex was a major predictor of whether patients resumed sexual activity in the year following AMI. For women this was the only significant predictor. The discharging cardiologist has detailed knowledge of the patient’s condition, has provided life-saving care and is best positioned to advice on the safety of engaging in physical activity, including sex.” The study found that those patients who had received advice on sexual activity after having a heart attack were one and a half times more likely to return to a healthy sex life than those who didn’t have this advice.

“This study might help doctors address issues that they’re traditionally reluctant to discuss,” said study author Harlan Krumholz, MD, professor of medicine and epidemiology and public health at Yale University School of Medicine.

The British Heart Foundation (BHF) agrees. “This research highlights the need for doctors to tackle topics that can often cause embarrassment for patients, such as sexual activity after a heart attack,” said Senior Cardiac Nurse at the BHF, Natasha Stewart, “By including information about sex in the rehabilitation process, doctors can make sure people are fully informed about how best to return to their normal activities.

“However, there are many factors that may complicate things, such as circulation problems or some heart medicines. If you have any questions, you should talk to your GP or cardiac rehabilitation team who can offer advice and support.”

The British Heart Foundation’s recommendation is that it should be OK to resume your sex life once you are fit enough to briskly walk up two flights of stairs without getting out of breath or having chest pains.

Double the risk is still a small risk

The Myocardial Infarction Onset Study, published in the American Journal of Cardiology in 2000, looked at whether sexual activity is a trigger for heart attacks. The study found that sexual activity doubled the relative risk of AMI in healthy people and people who had a history of angina or AMI. This sounds more alarming than it is. Focus on the word ‘relative’ in that sentence. Because the original risk of sex triggering a heart attack is extremely low, even when it’s doubled, the risk is still low.

The message from the MIO study is that in most cases sexual activity carries little risk of causing a cardiac event (heart problem). And in case you’re concerned, regular exercise was found to reduce the risk of a sexual activity-related heart attack. So you can help protect your heart by doing some exercise, such as walking, swimming or gardening, which can also help protect your heart.

Helpful websites

British Heart Foundation


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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