Cardiac rehab helps people recover physically and emotionally

Doctor and patient discussing treatments

Dear Doctors: My dad is recovering from a heart attack. He wants to get back to living his life, but I can tell he's worried. His doctors have suggested that he start doing a program called cardiac rehab. Will that help him? My mom and I have never heard of cardiac rehab and wonder what it involves.

Dear Reader: Cardiac rehabilitation refers to a supervised program that combines exercise, diet, counseling and education to support one's recovery from a heart attack or other type of heart problem. It's a team approach, and the specifics are tailored to each patient's individual needs.

For most people, a heart attack is a life-changing event. There's the risk of lasting physical damage to the heart, which affects how someone feels. There are also often mental and emotional repercussions, which can be significant. Following a heart attack, it's common for the person to feel overwhelmed and confused, to experience a loss of confidence and to become fearful. Many patients also begin to struggle with anxiety, depression and grief. The goal of cardiac rehab is to help the person recover from both the physical and emotional effects of a heart attack. The program also focuses on learning behaviors that can help reduce the risk of future problems.

If your father decides to move forward, the first step will be a complete medical and physical assessment. This includes a medical history, a physical exam, imaging tests of the heart and surrounding blood vessels and blood tests to set baseline levels for a number of indicators, including blood sugar and blood lipid levels. A stress test to evaluate heart function and blood flow will also be performed.

The information and data that has been collected will be analyzed, and a rehab program to meet his specific needs will be created. The length of a rehab program varies depending on the facility that offers it, but the duration is typically three months.

The specialists involved include cardiologists, exercise specialists, dieticians, nurse educators, mental health specialists and occupational and physical therapists. The program will offer supervised exercise sessions to get your father safely active again, dietary education and lifestyle guidance. This last category often includes strategies for quitting smoking or losing weight, dealing with stress and anxiety and help in managing chronic health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and unhealthy blood lipid levels. Mental health and emotional support are also important elements of a cardiac rehab program. This typically includes access to counseling and mental health therapy, and to medications, if those are needed.

Some programs offer support groups, where heart attack survivors can share their experiences and support one another's recovery. Once the structured program concludes, patients continue on their own. This includes regular exercise, a healthy diet, not smoking and maintaining a healthful weight. Studies have found that cardiac rehab can contribute to improved outcomes and lead to a better quality of life.

(Send your questions to [email protected], or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10960 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1955, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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