A heart attack is a medical emergency that often requires major surgery and it can take several months to recover from a heart attack completely.
Some medications may still be continued long after the initial attack, to prevent any further attacks occurring. It is also important to maintain any lifestyle changes that have been adopted to reduce the risk of heart attack.
Patients recovering from heart attack are managed by a team of healthcare professionals that may include physicians, nurses, physiotherapists, dieticians and counsellors.
Stages of recovery
The gradual return to normal daily life is referred to as cardiac rehabilitation, a process which typically involves the following stages:
- After return from hospital, only light activities are allowed. The level of activity is then gradually increased to a normal level.
- Routine exercise programmes include those to strengthen the heart, lower blood pressure and improve blood circulation. Examples include using an exercise bike, the treadmill and going swimming.
- Returning to work depends on the patient’s occupation. If the job is not stressful or does not require heavy physical activity, the patient may safely return at a fairly early stage. However, those returning to heavy manual work or very stressful jobs need to take several months off.
- Patients can also resume a normal sex life after around four to six weeks after the heart attack.
- Driving may not be allowed for a few weeks after a heart attack.
- Depression and anxiety are common features after a heart attack and may require therapy with a trained psychologist, psychiatrist or counsellor.
Another aspect of recovery is prevention of a further heart attack. This can involve the use of medication as well as lifestyle changes. Examples include:
- Maintaining a healthy and balanced diet with enough fruits and vegetables, oily fish and omega-3 fatty acids. Foods rich in saturated fats, trans fatty acids and red and processed meats should be reduced. A Mediterranean-style diet is generally recommended for improving heart health.
- Quitting smoking
- Regular alcohol consumption should not exceed the recommended daily limits (no more than three to four units a day for men, and two to three units a day for women). A unit of alcohol is about half a pint of lager, a small glass of wine or a 25ml measure of spirits.
- Adults should perform at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity activity (such as cycling, swimming, jogging or brisk walking) every week.
- Maintaining a healthy body weight that is within a normal body mass index (BMI) range.
- Certain medications that may be used to prevent another attack include:
- Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors such as enalapril, and captopril may be used to lower blood pressure
- Anticoagulants such as aspirin and clopidogrel prevent blood clot formation and re-occlusion
- Beta-blockers such as metoprolol and carvedilol regulate the heartbeat and prevent it beating too fast
- Statins such as atorvastatin, aimvastatin and pravastatin lower cholesterol levels.
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc