Is Safe Sex Possible After a Heart Attack?

After suffering a heart attack, patients often need to consider lifestyle changes with the guidance of their doctors. But counseling about safe sex is usually left out of the discussion, new research in the American Heart Association journal Circulation shows. According to the study, one month after their heart attacks, only 12 percent of women and 19 percent of men in the study reported that they received sexual counseling from their doctor.

With 720,000 people suffering a heart attack in the United States each year, including sexual health in the overall conversation about patient health becomes all the more important.

See the Famous Faces of Heart Disease »

Let’s Talk About Sex

Sex may not be the first subject doctors bring up with their patients who are in recovery. But those who are sexually active are definitely thinking about it.

safe sex

"Even with life-threatening illness, people value their sexual function and believe it is appropriate for healthcare providers to raise the issue of resuming sexual activity," study author Dr. Stacy Tessler Lindau said in a press release.

The lack of sexual health advice by doctors has continued to keep people in the dark. A statement released last year by American and European cardiology experts advised that heart patients and their partners receive individually tailored counseling from doctors about resuming sexual activity.

Better Safe than Sorry?

Sexual activity post-heart attack will differ for every patient. But doctors may provide conservative, one-size-fits all statements regarding how patients should act between the sheets. In the study, patients given restrictions by their doctors were most often told to limit sex, take a more passive role, or keep their heart rate down.

While doctors mean well, such caution could be unnecessary. The good news is that for the most part, sex after a heart attack is safe, Lindau says.

"Healthcare providers should let their patients know that for most it is OK to resume physical activity, including sexual activity, and to return to work," said Lindau, director of the Program in Integrative Sexual Medicine at the University of Chicago Medical Center. "They can tell their patients to stop the activity and notify them if they experience chest pain, shortness of breath or other concerning symptoms.”

Read A Woman’s Guide to Safe Sex Basics»

Supporting Women’s Health

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the Unites States. However, this study emphasizes the need to focus on women's health in particular, especially in light of other revelations.

A previous, smaller study found that most women want their doctors to give them more information about the safety of having sex after a heart attack. And skirting the question won’t stop people from engaging in their normal sex lives. The study also found that despite fears of another heart attack, many women started having sex within a month after their heart episode.

Starting a Conversation

A Woman’s Guide to Safe Sex Basics »

Sex is a crucial part of overall health. Patients need their sexual health questions addressed. It’s up to doctors to include sexual health in the larger discussion about lifestyle changes, including diet and exercise.

When the topic of sexual function is left out of counseling, patients perceive that it's not relevant to their medical condition, or that they are alone in the problems they have resuming normal sexual activity.
Dr. Stacy Tessler Lindau, University of Chicago Medical Center

If the doctor doesn’t bring up sex after a heart attack, patients have every right to speak up. “I encourage patients to ask outright, ‘Is it OK for me to resume sexual activity? When? Is there anything I should look out for?’” Lindau said.

While doctors would ideally start the conversation about sexual health, this is clearly far from commonplace. Patients can miss out on information critical to their well being.

"When the topic of sexual function is left out of counseling, patients perceive that it's not relevant to their medical condition, or that they are alone in the problems they have resuming normal sexual activity," Lindau said.