The words “heart attack” can be alarming. But thanks to improvements in medical treatments and procedures, people who survive their first cardiac incident can go on to lead full and productive lives.

Still, it’s important to understand what triggered your heart attack and what you can expect going forward. The best way to move ahead in your recovery is to make sure your doctor answers your most pressing questions and provides you with clear, detailed instructions before leaving the hospital.

Here are some questions to help guide the conversation with your doctor after a heart attack.

When will I be released from the hospital?

In the past, people who experienced a heart attack could spend weeks in the hospital, much of it on strict bed rest. Today, many are out of bed in a day, walking and engaging in a low-level stress test a few days later, and then released home.

If you experienced complications or underwent a surgical procedure such as a coronary artery bypass or angioplasty, you’ll likely require a longer stay.

What are the most commonly prescribed treatments after a heart attack?

Most people who’ve experienced a heart attack are prescribed medications, lifestyle changes, and, sometimes, surgical procedures. Your doctor may also perform diagnostic tests to determine the extent of your heart damage and coronary artery disease.

The lifestyle changes that your doctor may recommend include becoming more active, adopting a more heart-healthy diet, reducing stress, and stopping smoking.

Will I need cardiac rehabilitation?

Participating in cardiac rehabilitation can reduce your heart disease risk factors, improve your quality of life, enhance your emotional stability, and help you manage your disease.

Doctors usually recommend a medically supervised program to boost your health through exercise training, education, and counseling. These programs are often associated with a hospital and involve assistance from a rehabilitation team consisting of a doctor, nurse, dietitian, or other healthcare professionals.

Should I avoid all physical activity?

You may have enough energy for work and leisure, but it’s important to rest or take a short nap when you feel overly tired. It’s equally important to participate in social events and incorporate physical activity into your daily routine. Your doctor can provide guidance about what’s best for your specific situation.

Is it normal to have chest pain after a heart attack?

Not everyone will experience pain, but light, fleeting pain or pressure in your chest during or right after physical exertion, intense emotion, or eating a heavy meal is typical. Keep your doctor informed of any chest pain. Unrelenting pain that doesn’t go away requires a trip to the hospital.

When can I return to work?

The time for returning to work can vary from two weeks to three months, depending on the severity of the heart attack and the nature of your job duties and responsibilities. Your doctor will determine when it’s appropriate to return by carefully monitoring your recovery and progress.

I’ve been experiencing big swings in my emotions. Is this related to my heart attack?

For two to six months after a cardiac incident, you may experience what feels like an emotional roller coaster. Depression is common, particularly if you had to make substantial changes to your regular routine. A twinge of pain may spark fear of another heart attack or death, and you may feel angry that this happened to you.

Discuss your mood swings with your doctor and family, and don’t be afraid to seek professional assistance to help you cope.

Will I have to take medications and, if so, what kind?

Starting or stopping medications or adjusting old medications is common following a heart attack.

You may be prescribed certain medications to reduce your risk of a second heart attack, such as:

  • beta-blockers and angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors to help treat high blood pressure
  • statins to lower cholesterol
  • antithrombotics to help prevent blood clots
  • low-dose aspirin to reduce the likelihood of another heart attack

Aspirin therapy can be very effective in the prevention of secondary heart attacks. It should only be used to prevent first heart attacks in people who have a high risk of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (e.g., heart attack and stroke) and a low risk of bleeding.

Disclose all medications — even over-the-counter drugs, supplements, and herbal medicine — with your doctor to prevent drug interactions.

Can I engage in sexual activities?

You may wonder how a heart attack will impact your sex life, or if it’s safe to have sex at all. According to the American Heart Association, the possibility of sexual activity causing or increasing the risk for a heart attack is miniscule. If you’ve been treated and stabilized, you can likely continue your regular pattern of sexual activity within a few weeks after recovery.

Don’t be shy about starting a conversation with your doctor to decide what’s safe for you.

The takeaway

Make sure you understand what you can and can’t do, what’s normal and what’s not, and what treatments you need to take after a heart attack. Being open with your doctor about your questions and concerns will only help you recover faster.