Doctor Discussion Guide: What Happens After a Heart Attack

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As alarming as the words “heart attack” may be, thanks to improvements in medical treatments and procedures, most people survive their first cardiac incident and go on to lead full and productive lives. Still, it’s important to understand what triggered your 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 of the most commonly-asked questions: When will I be released from the hospital? A few decades ago, the typical heart attack victim spent weeks in the hospital, much of it on strict bed rest. Today, many patients are out of bed in a day, walking and engaging in a low-level stress test a few days later, and then released to go home. Patients who suffer complications or undergo surgical procedures such as a bypass or angioplasty are likely to require a longer stay. What are the most commonly prescribed treatments after a heart attack? Most patients are prescribed medications, lifestyle changes and, in some cases, surgical procedures. Your doctor may also perform diagnostic tests to determine the extent of your heart damage and coronary artery disease.

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Lifestyle changes such as becoming more active, adopting a more heart-healthy diet, reducing stress, and smoking cessation are also routinely prescribed. Will I need cardiac rehabilitation? Participating in cardiac rehabilitation can reduce your heart disease risk factors, improve your quality of life, enhance and emotional stability, and help you manage your disease. That’s why 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? Most heart attack patients have enough energy for work and leisure activities but it’s important to rest or take a short nap when you feel overly tired. It is equally important to participate in recreation and social events and incorporate physical activity into your daily routine. Your doctor can provide guidance about what's best for your specific situation.

Is chest pain normal 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. Unrelenting pain that will not go away after 15 minutes 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 have been experiencing big swings in my emotions. Is this related to my heart attack? For two to six months after a cardiac incident, patients usually go on 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. Just having a life-threatening disease can cause anger and irritation. 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 new medications, stopping or adjusting old medications is common following a heart attack. Most heart attack patients are prescribed a variety of drugs to treat their condition and reduce the risk of a second heart attack.

Beta blockers and ACE inhibitors help treat high blood pressure, statins lower cholesterol, antithrombotics help prevent blood clots, and low-dose aspirin reduce the likelihood of another heart attack. Disclose all medications -- even over-the-counter, supplements and herbal-- to your doctor to prevent counter or negative drug interactions.Is sexual activity OK? You may wonder but be reticent to ask how your heart attack will impact your sex life, or if it’s safe to have sex at all. According to a new scientific statement issued by the American Heart Association, it is probably safe to have sex if your cardiovascular disease has been treated and stabilized. Most people can continue their regular pattern of sexual activity within a few weeks after they recover from a heart attack. Don’t be shy about starting a conversation with your doctor to decide what's safe for you.

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