Cardiac rehabilitation, or cardiac rehab, is a service that aims to reduce the risk of complications in people with heart conditions. It typically involves exercises, education about topics such as the diet, and stress management techniques.

This article explores what to expect from cardiac rehab, why it is important, and how much insurance covers.

A person doing exercise while attending cardiac rehabilitation.Share on Pinterest
Image credit: Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

Cardiac rehab is a medically supervised program for people who have experienced heart conditions.

The goal is to:

  • improve the person’s health and quality of life
  • prevent further problems
  • reduce the chances of needing to return to the hospital for heart-related issues

The rehab program tends to include a combination of exercise training, education, and counseling. It takes place in a clinic or hospital rehab center.

Different healthcare providers are usually involved in cardiac rehab, including nurses, exercise specialists, and nutritionists, while doctors supervise the program. Family members and friends can also provide important support.

A doctor might offer cardiac rehab to someone of any age who has had:

  • a heart attack
  • heart failure
  • heart valve surgery
  • a coronary artery bypass
  • a percutaneous coronary intervention, or stent placement

A person might also attend cardiac rehab if they have an ongoing heart condition, such as coronary artery disease with stable chest pain.

There are clear benefits of cardiac rehabilitation, but it is not mandatory.

Attending the rehab is key in preventing further complications, which could be fatal, as the American Heart Association (AHA) note. Rehab also helps people return to their usual routines after recovering from a heart problem.

While the program may take about 3 months, the benefits can last for many years.

In cardiac rehab, people receive expert guidance on eating well, managing their weight, and managing their stress levels. If a person decides not to attend the program, it is still crucial to follow this type of guidance from a doctor.

People who live far from anywhere that offers cardiac rehabilitation should discuss transport or homebound services with their doctor.

Cardiac rehab usually takes place in a clinic or hospital rehabilitation center, and a team of doctors and other healthcare professionals are involved.

The program has three parts:

  • Exercise training and counseling: Physical activity can get the entire cardiovascular system working, and it is critical to maintaining a healthy heart.
  • Education for healthful living: This involves managing risk factors, such as by quitting smoking and eating well.
  • Counseling: The aim is to reduce stress, which can have adverse effects on heart health.

The program may last around 12 weeks and include up to 36 supervised sessions. Each session varies, depending on the person’s needs.

Throughout the program, a nurse or another healthcare professional monitors for any changes in symptoms, takes electrocardiogram readings, and checks the person’s heart rate and blood pressure.

During each session

During the first session, a doctor and an exercise physiologist design a rehabilitation program after taking into account the person’s medical history and the results of a physical exam and tests such as a fitness test or heart imaging scan.

With this information, they put together a structured exercise plan. Some people start with light activities and build up their routine up over time.

An exercise session might involve using a stationary bike, jogging on a track or treadmill, or using a rowing machine. The goal is to build fitness levels and improve heart health gradually.

Healthcare professionals monitor the person’s vital signs, such as heart rate and blood pressure, during exercise. A team including nurses, physiotherapists, and exercise specialists is also available to provide support.

Most sessions also involve education tailored for each person. This might involve guidance about diet, stress management, or safe exercise. Some people receive counseling.

Sometimes, family members or friends can participate in cardiac rehab.

A person needs a referral from a doctor to attend cardiac rehab. If a doctor has not provided one, the AHA note, it may be necessary to ask for a referral.

If a person lives far from a cardiac rehabilitation center, a doctor can help arrange transport. For some people, it is possible to receive cardiac rehab at home.

A person usually does not need to prepare much for a rehab session. Doctors usually give advice about what to expect before rehab begins.

Medicare and most other insurance plans usually cover up to 36 sessions of cardiac rehabilitation.

However, as always, check with the insurance company first. There are some exceptions, involving people who have received pacemakers, for example.

Medicare covers cardiac rehabilitation for people who have had:

  • a heart attack in the last 12 months
  • coronary bypass surgery
  • stable angina
  • heart valve repair or replacement
  • coronary angioplasty
  • heart or lung transplants
  • chronic heart failure with reduced heart function

There are few risks to attending cardiac rehabilitation. Doctors and other healthcare providers design each program for each person and they continually monitor for signs of complications.

In very rare cases, physical activity during rehab can cause muscle or bone injuries or, potentially, further heart problems. If this happens, the supervising staff immediately stop the activity and provide treatment.

Cardiac rehabilitation is an important part of recovery from heart problems. It can also reduce the chances of experiencing another cardiac event.

A team of healthcare professionals tailors each program to suit each person’s needs and provides close monitoring each step of the way.

Rehab usually involves physical activity that gradually increases in intensity and education about improving cardiac health by managing stress effectively and making changes to the diet. Some people also attend counseling.

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