Can Masturbating Cause Heart Problems?
The power of the human sex drive is awe-inspiring—and sometimes terrifying to behold.
Because of it, wars have been waged. Countries have been destroyed. Entire religions have been birthed—if we take as fact that Henry VIII created the Church of England and launched the Reformation because he couldn't get a divorce from one woman so he could shag another.
So it's only natural that some folks would seek to rein in sexual pleasure using whatever means necessary to make people feel guilty.
That includes propaganda.
Masturbation, in particular, often comes under fire in this way. Tall tales have been circulated to keep people out of the self-pleasure game. Speculative, eyebrow-raising, and just plain unscientific tall tales.
At one time or another, you've probably heard that masturbation will:
- Make you go blind
- Damage your dick
- Cause your penis to shrink
- Cause it to curve to one side (switch hands, fellas!)
- Use up all of your allotted orgasms
- Use up all of your sperm
- Make you impotent
- Cause you to become physically weak
- Make you go insane
Another tale some people have been told over the years is that masturbating can cause heart problems. Only that one has a slight ring of authenticity to it.
Let's examine that last proposition and discover what masturbation actually does to your heart and what you need to know about heart health and sexual activity in general.
Is masturbation bad for your heart?
Spoiler alert: No, masturbation doesn't directly cause heart issues any more than it causes you to grow hair on your palm. (Made you look!)
People masturbate. Let's be clear about that.
Masturbation—self-pleasure practiced in a healthy, non-compulsive, private setting—is a normal activity that actually has tremendous benefits. These include:
- Mental and emotional stress relief
- Physical tension relief
- Sleep enhancement
- Mood enhancement
- Relief from period cramps
- Concentration boost
- Pain relief
"It's not like masturbation itself, or sex itself, is doing something that's damaging to your heart," said Katherine Rotker, M.D., a urologist and an assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine who specializes in male infertility and reproductive health. "There's nothing innate about sex or masturbation that is inherently damaging."
Why do people believe masturbating can cause heart problems?
The likely source for such a far-reaching claim isn't difficult to find. From time to time, someone dies while they're in the throes of sexual arousal—whether partnered sex or solo. And sometimes they die of myocardial infarction, aka a heart attack.
There's a crucial distinction here. Yes, some people have died of a heart attack while masturbating or having sex. The act itself didn't cause the heart attack, though. It was the condition their body was already in, existing heart disease or some hidden congenital problem they already had.
"Sexual activity is akin to a brief burst of mild to moderate physical exertion, like walking briskly or ascending a couple of flights of stairs," said Amy Pearlman, M.D., a men's health specialist and co-founder of Prime Institute in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. "During the build-up to sexual activity and throughout the pleasurable journey of arousal, blood pressure and heart rate experience an uptick, peaking at the moment of orgasm. These metrics then swiftly return to their usual levels."
Putting more pressure on yourself can worsen physical stressors. For example, being anxious about getting caught masturbating, maintaining an erection or reaching orgasm can exacerbate these stressors.
"For some individuals, factors such as medical conditions, emotional aspects or older age can lead to challenges in achieving orgasm, potentially placing an additional workload on the cardiovascular system," she added.
The issue, then—the next time you read about someone who died of a heart attack while giving himself a hand or having sex—is likely to be that they weren't physically fit enough or had a preexisting underlying heart condition.
"Sexual activity is just like any other physical activity, and you have to have a certain degree of physical fitness to participate in any kind of strenuous physical activity," Rotker said. "So with patients, I compare it to the fact that heart attacks go up on the first snow of the year because men who have been very sedentary will go out and do a very vigorous activity in shoveling snow. And so we see an increase in cardiac events there."
Heart trouble during masturbation is rare
People in poor physical condition should talk with their doctor about whether sexual activity is safe. However, regardless of your fitness level, your risk of having a heart attack during a masturbation session is exceedingly rare.
Looking at the numbers, in the two-hour period after sex, your risk of a myocardial infarction goes up 2.5-fold over the baseline, according to a 2004 article in the American Journal of Cardiology.
Sounds scary, right?
Well, the journal was quick to point out the real risk. Because the baseline is so low, the increased risk translates to a 0.01 percent rise over the course of a year for low-risk people who have weekly sex. The rate rises to 0.1 percent for higher-risk individuals.
Finally, the article asserts that of all myocardial infarctions, those attributable to sexual activity make up less than 1 percent of the whole.
If you have health issues, don't be afraid to talk with your doctor about sexual activity. It just makes sense. For the most part, though, if you can climb two flights of stairs without getting short of breath or feeling chest pain, you're probably going to be OK.
"It's not a common thing, but still," Rotker said. "That's the reason why you'll hear about it in the Viagra commercials or that we, as doctors, will recommend making sure your heart is healthy enough for sex before proceeding. Not because there's something inherently dangerous about sex or masturbation, but because sex is a strenuous physical activity."