Many women who've had heart attacks want more information about how to safely resume sex afterward, a new study suggests.
Researchers conducted detailed interviews with female heart attack patients and found that many held fears about engaging in sex after a heart attack, and wondered whether their hearts could handle the exertion.
Some said their partners were concerned that sex would trigger another heart attack. "I had to convince my husband that I wasn’t going to die in bed," one woman was quoted as saying.
Despite these fears, most women said they started having sex again about four weeks after their heart attack. Often, women said they engaged in sex because they wanted to return to a "normal" life.
"You don’t always want to be the lady that had the heart attack," one woman in the study said.
However, most women said their doctor did not give them any advice about resuming sex after their heart attack. Those who did speak with their doctors reported that they initiated the conversation themselves, and that the doctor did not provide a very satisfactory answer.
"Cardiologists, in the very immediate, are trying to save lives," said study researcher Emily Abramsohn, a public health researcher at the University of Chicago. "What they're concerned about is patients' hearts," Abramsohn said. But the study shows "women want to be treated as a whole person."
Cardiologists can ease concerns by speaking openly with patients about sex after a heart attack, Abramsohn said. Women who have these concerns should know that they are not alone in feeling this way, and "it's OK to ask," for more information from your doctor, Abramsohn said.
Although nearly three-quarters of men, and close to half of women reported being sexually active before their heart attack, only about 47 percent of men and 35 percent of women say that they received counseling about when they could resume sex, according to prior research.
Some doctors may not think to discuss sex with older patients — the average age of women in the study was 60 — but studies show that older men and women value their sexual life, Abramsohn said.
The American Heart Association says that sex is probably safe for patients after a heart attack as long as they are in stable condition, and have no complications. Those who are unstable or who have severe symptoms should be treated and stabilized before having sex. Heart attacks rarely occur during sex because sexual activity is usually relatively short in duration, AHA says.
Patients who receive nitrate therapy for chest pain due to coronary artery disease should not use erectile dysfunction drugs, the AHA says.
The study was small, and it's possible that those who agreed to take part had views that were not reflective of the majority of women (for instance, they were especially concerned about sex after their heart attack).
The study is published today (July 24) in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.