The heart is one of the most delicate yet important organs in our body. For this reason, people who have dangerously fast or chaotic heartbeats that might compromise blood flow are given an implantable cardiac defibrillator — a small electronic device installed inside the chest to prevent sudden death from cardiac arrest. While doctors often tell patients they can still lead healthy, active lives, which include participating in sports, many patients are unsure how safe they are, considering these activities could set off the defibrillator. According to a new study, this is especially of interest to these patients (and their partners) when it comes to sex.

At the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2015 annual meeting, researchers from the University of Washington presented results from a study in which they looked at the concerns of both patients with heart defibrillators and their sexual partners. They gave 105 sexually active older couples a survey that included eight questions asking them to rate their concerns about sexual activity immediately after an implanted defibrillator surgery. The participants, whose average age was 65 (their partners were about 63), were then asked to complete the survey again three months later.

"We can't just focus on the patient," Dr. Cynthia Dougherty, a professor of nursing at the University of Washington School of Nursing in Seattle, Wash., said in press release. "An intimate partner's level of comfort is also important for recovery, and their concerns warrant attention from health care providers."

The researchers found that immediately after the surgery, the couples’ most pressing concerns included a lack of interest in sex, a defibrillator discharge during sex, and a malfunction in the defibrillator causing the partner to go into cardiac arrest during sex. Three months later, however, the researchers found the levels of concern had dropped in both partners and patients. Partners concerns that a patient’s heart would stop during sex dropped by 50 percent, while concerns over an accidental defibrillator discharge dropped nearly 33 percent. The largest drop in patient concerns was over the possibility of an accidental electric shock as well.

Dougherty believes heart patients and their partners’ sexual concerns are often neglected in conversations with health care providers. In turn, this can affect recovery, emotional health, and intimacy in relationships. She believes health care providers should be open to discussing the topic with their patients. "This is an issue that patients are often reluctant to discuss and sometimes providers don't initiate these discussions as part of routine practice," she said. "But it shouldn't be a taboo subject."

Discussing sex after a defibrillator surgery can help allay the fears that partners and patients expressed, as they apparently have little to worry about.

Source: Dougherty C, et al. American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions. 2015.