Valentine’s Day is said to be the most romantic day of the year, and the Heart Foundation of Australia is urging heart attack survivors to be more open when it comes to talking about sexual activity and intimacy.
New research suggests that more than eight in ten Australian health professionals think it’s important for survivors to discuss their sex life with a doctor, yet less than one in four do so regularly. So, using the national day of love as a way of getting the message out there, the Heart Foundation is encouraging people to put their embarrassment aside and talk about sex.
There’s no denying that a heart attack can knock a patient around, yet the Heart Foundation Queensland Health Director Rachelle Foreman suggested that resuming sexual activity after an attack is important when it comes to the quality of life for patients and their lovers. Furthermore, she said that emotional intimacy was important.
“Heart attack survivors are worried about having another heart attack, performance, and over-exertion,” she said. “Depression, fatigue, a lack of cardiac fitness, pain or discomfort, and sexual dysfunction, including low libido, can also play a role.”
She suggested that two out of three heart attack survivors admit that heart attacks have impacted their sex life negatively, but only one in four discuss the problems with their doctors. “That’s what prompted us to ask health professionals for their perspective, so that we could provide better information for both patients and health professionals,” she added.
Research by the Heart Foundation, University of Sunshine Coast and True Relationships and Reproductive Health found that while health professionals are more comfortable to discuss sex issues with women than men, more than half were comfortable chatting about it with people from an array of backgrounds and cultures. The 2017 survey quizzed 251 health professionals, as well as a Heart Foundation patient study.
National Heart Foundation Chief Medical Advisor, Professor Garry Jennings AO, suggested that while many health professionals acknowledge that these chats are important, many lack the time, confidence, protocols or even resources to make it happen.
“This isn’t something we generally talk about openly with others, and health professionals are not exempt from feeling uncomfortable about it – in fact, many of those directly managing people with heart attacks have not had a lot of training on sex and intimacy advice,” he said. “What they can do is try to put themselves in the position of the patient and listen – both to what is said and what is not said about these important aspects of life.”
Patients have a number of options when it comes to discussing these matters. First, GPs and cardiac rehabilitation specialists, followed by cardiologists and counsellors. “Everyone needs to play a part,” Professor Jennings added. “If it’s not covered by health professionals during recovery, it can play on patients’ minds and cause misconceptions and unnecessary anxiety. It is stressful enough to have survived a heart attack and to resume normal life without the added burden of not knowing whether, and when, to resume intimate relations.”
He added that if patients can get over the stress and embarrassment of bringing up the topic, people usually find that it isn’t as disturbing as they’d thought. “It’s important to keep the lines of communication open with your partner, and sometimes a counsellor can help you do that.”
In many cases, it’s actually the partner of someone who has had a heart attack that seeks medical help, while health professionals are able to offer support to both people. Professor Jennings added that despite the concern, less than one per cent of heart attacks occur during sex. In fact, heart attack survivors can be having sex as little as a week after a heart attack or stent insertion, and as soon as six weeks after coronary bypass surgery.
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