A heart attack, whether it’s your partner’s or your own, is a devastating challenge for any couple. Recovery may be slow. Anxiety and fear are inescapable. Depression is common. The partner who is suddenly thrust into the role of caregiver may, at times, feel overwhelmed. Amid so many physical and emotional challenges, sex may feel like a low priority.
But it shouldn’t. What both of you need most of all is comforting, and nothing comforts like the touch of the one you love.
Both partners may be afraid of risking a recurrence. Not knowing what to do, they wait. Sadly, most are not getting appropriate advice from their doctors. In a recent study of patients aged 55 or younger, only 12 percent of the women and 19 percent of the men talked to their doctors about sex, and patients were more likely than doctors to bring it up (and I'd wager the numbers grow smaller with older patients). As one man said, “The subject was never mentioned in ten weeks of after-care sessions for life style and food advice and recuperative gym exercises.”
When sex did get talked about, two-thirds of the doctors gave advice that was more restrictive than the American Heart Association guidelines. Jalees Rehman writes, “The kind of restrictions recommended by doctors in the study—and presumably by medical practitioners who weren’t polled—are not backed up by science and place an unnecessary burden on a patient’s personal life.”
Blanket restrictions are unreasonable because every patient and every heart attack is different. It’s vital to discuss with your doctor your case in particular. After an uncomplicated heart attack, one week may be long enough to wait. Or you may need longer. The important thing is to be guided by where you are in your recovery.
Having sex is like doing mild to moderate exercise. If your doctor gives you the okay—and ask if he or she doesn’t give you the answers you need!—and if you can handle such activities as climbing stairs and carrying groceries without chest pain or feeling out of breath, sex should be fine as well.
You will be adjusting to new medications. Antidepressants may lower libido, and beta-blockers may interfere with erections. If you’re in open communication with your doctor about sexual issues, dosages may be adjusted or medications switched.
Various stressors are unavoidable, but sex can relieve stress and soothe both patients and their partners. The years of cultivating awareness of your own and your partner’s body will pay off. Care in tending to your relationship in the years before a crisis is like money in the bank. You never know when you might need it.
Sex is exercise, and exercise strengthens heart muscle. Sex also strengthens relationships. It’s a medicine no couple should be without for long.
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.