Aims: To establish the effects of relaxation therapy on the recovery from a cardiac ischaemic event and secondary prevention.
Methods and results: A search was conducted for controlled trials in which patients with myocardial ischaemia were taught relaxation therapy, and outcomes were measured with respect to physiological, psychological, cardiac effects, return to work and cardiac events. A total of 27 studies were located. Six studies used abbreviated relaxation therapy (3 h or less of instruction), 13 studies used full relaxation therapy (9 h of supervised instruction and discussion), and in eight studies full relaxation therapy was expanded with cognitive therapy (11 h on average). Physiological outcomes: reduction in resting heart rate, increased heart rate variability, improved exercise tolerance and increased high-density lipoprotein cholesterol were found. No effect was found on blood pressure or cholesterol. Psychological outcome: state anxiety was reduced, trait anxiety was not, depression was reduced. Cardiac effects: the frequency of occurrence of angina pectoris was reduced, the occurrence of arrhythmia and exercise induced ischaemia were reduced. Return to work was improved. Cardiac events occurred less frequently, as well as cardiac deaths. With the exception of resting heart rate, the effects were small, absent or not measured in studies in which abbreviated relaxation therapy was given. No difference was found between the effects of full or expanded relaxation therapy.
Conclusion: Intensive supervised relaxation practice enhances recovery from an ischaemic cardiac event and contributes to secondary prevention. It is an important ingredient of cardiac rehabilitation, in addition to exercise and psycho-education.