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What Is a Cardiac Chair?

By Kristen Douglas
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Cardiac chairs are specialized equipment engineered to enhance recovery post-heart surgery and respiratory conditions. They offer a significant advantage in patient care. According to a study published in the American Journal of Critical Care, the use of a cardiac chair can reduce the length of hospital stay and improve patient outcomes. 

These chairs, which transition seamlessly from a flat to an upright position at the touch of a button, provide crucial support for the back, arms, and legs, mirroring the functionality of a hospital bed with added versatility. Heart health professionals often advocate for their use, as sitting in an elevated position can aid the healing process while minimizing the risk of strain or injury, especially in patients with compromised health. 

While primarily found in hospital settings, individuals with ongoing conditions or long-term care requirements may also rent or purchase a cardiac chair for home use, ensuring continuous support during their recovery journey.

How it Works

The device is made to serve as a fully reclined bed at times, but can be adjusted to form what otherwise looks like a somewhat bulky but normal chair. Its main goal is to elevate the patient from the waist up without requiring the patient to move much, if at all. Medical experts usually agree that an upright, seated position provides more relief to the lungs and can improve circulation. As opposed to a hospital bed, the chair is usually easier to adjust; it also has several movable sections rather than a single mattress. Mattresses can often adjust a little bit, but they are typically intended more for basic reclining and propping than actual specialized support.

Many chairs are on wheels, which can help patients who are already in sitting positions to be moved to other hospital departments or rooms without having to move about, as would be required if transitioning from bed to wheelchair. These devices aren’t limited to people in cardiac centers, either. People who have respiratory illnesses can often benefit by being elevated into sitting positions and are sometimes put in these devices, as are people who are recovering from other major procedures or surgeries that involve healing in the chest or torso region.

Main Benefits of Chair Therapy

If a patient who has undergone cardiac surgery were to try to move from a flat position to a sitting position on a hospital bed, he or she would run the risk of straining the fresh sutures and could put undue pressure of the recovering heart. This movement is especially difficult for larger or weaker patients, even with medical staff assistance.

Sitting up too quickly after a surgical procedure can also cause dizziness and increase a patient's chance of falling. With a cardiac chair, the patient or staff can adjust the chair slowly into a sitting position from the waist up, and then adjust the lower part of the chair from the knee down. By doing this, the patient has no strain on his or her sutures, heart, or lungs, and can adjust to the altered position without dizziness.

Basics of Cardiac Recovery

The theoretical basis for having cardiac patients sit during recovery has been promoted in medical circles for decades. In the early 1940s, medical professionals discovered that patients who had undergone surgery or who had experienced cardiac arrest recovered more quickly and more fully if they became ambulatory sooner rather than later. Doctors began using chair therapy — namely, having patients move from bed to chair to sit for portions of the day — because patients in sitting positions had less strain in breathing and had improved circulation over those who were in laying down positions for their entire stay. By the early 1950s, short walks were also recommended. The cardiac chair has made it much easier for medical staff and patients to be able to sit and to get into position to stand.

Use at Home

The vast majority of these chairs are used in hospitals, particularly in cardiac wards. They tend to be very expensive, and the number of moving parts they require means that they often need more regular maintenance than other devices that are more simply constructed. It’s usually somewhat rare for people to have these chairs in their homes, though this may be recommended for people who have chronic heart of breathing conditions, particularly those who are elderly or particularly frail. The purchase price is often very high, but in many cases they can be rented from medical supply companies for a span of months or years.

Cardiac Chairs Vs. Bed Rest

It is critical to look at the popular alternative, the bed rest, to appreciate what a cardiac chair does.

It’s natural to assume that after having a cardiac episode, patients should rest all they want. However, bed rest can ultimately harm the individual more. Luckily, cardiac chairs can prevent this outcome. 

Research shows that prolonged immobility has negative consequences on a patient’s overall mental and physical well-being. Too much bed rest increases body fat, lessens the maximum amount of oxygen intake, hinders glucose tolerance, and elevates blood pressure

Not to mention, bed rest reduces calcium, a necessary mineral for bone health. Thus, bone density decreases, and muscles atrophy. Elderly patients need extra care because weakened bones increase the risk for injuries to the spine and hips.

Regarding effects on the gastrointestinal tract, bed-ridden patients often exhibit symptoms of constipation and malnutrition. Swallowing becomes more difficult since they are lying on their back, and their overall food intake lowers. Alternatively, the use of cardiac chairs could promote regular eating habits. 

Bed confinement also reduces the availability of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, essential neurotransmitters that regulate feelings of satisfaction and happiness. Patients on bed rest are more likely to develop depression and anxiety as a result. Sleep habits may also worsen, along with the patient’s memory. 

In part, bed-ridden patients feel depressed because they grapple with a loss of agency. Since they depend entirely on caregivers, they may internalize feelings of helplessness. Meanwhile, research proves that patients who use cardiac chairs are more hopeful and have more faith in their abilities to recover. 

The effects of bed rest can compound with those of natural aging, resulting in a worse outcome for the patient. Doctors recommend that patients move their bodies regularly and exercise as soon as they are able. After a hospital stay, a cardiac chair is a perfect way to encourage a patient to start moving again. 

Cardiac Chairs vs Electric Beds

Electric beds, which can move into a sitting position, are another alternative to cardiac chairs. These beds can seem more useful than cardiac chairs, but research indicates that cardiac chairs are superior in helping cardiac patients recover.

Patients appeared to have more oxygen and less carbon dioxide in their arteries after using cardiac chairs. Cardiac chairs also improved patients’ tidal flow or the amount of air a patient inhales in a breath. By comparison, patients who used electric beds instead to move into a sitting position did not see any physiological benefits. 

Increased blood oxygen levels are ideal for cardiac patients. With more oxygen in the blood, cells regenerate faster, immune systems strengthen, and energy levels rise. This encourages a faster recovery for cardiac patients. 

Artery narrowing and blockage is also a common symptom for cardiac patients. Plaque can block arteries to the point of allowing little oxygenated blood to pass through to the heart. This can result in a heart attack. In short, the more oxygen available to a patient, the better. 

How Cardiac Chairs Support Physical Therapy 

As patients undergo physical therapy to regain their mobility, cardiac chairs can be a major asset. A study involving a 34-year-old male cardiac patient details how this can look. 

The patient had suffered a heart attack. Once he began physical therapy, the doctors observed that the patient was unable to move from a lying-down to a sitting position without his body contorting involuntarily. The patient also had trouble sitting up straight. 

The physical therapy started with the patient moving to dangle off the side of the hospital bed. The next step was to move the patient from the hospital bed to a stretcher chair. With him in the chair, the doctors could better test his range of motion. 

The patient was now able to perform various physical therapy exercises, including tricep and quad stretches, and reaching tests. Additionally, he could participate in coordination exercises, such as throwing a ball. Sixteen days after starting physical therapy, the patient was discharged. 

In this example, it’s clear how cardiac chairs can quicken a cardiac patient’s recovery regarding their mobility. A cardiac chair allows a patient to participate in physical therapy exercises that would be more challenging, if not impossible, to perform in bed. 

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Discussion Comments
By lovealot — On Jun 07, 2011

My cousin's husband had bypass heart surgery a few years back. I think that he must have used a cardiac hospital chair when he was recuperating in the hospital. It's such a good idea. And to think that something that was put into use in the 1940s is still used today.

He uses a recliner chair to help him breathe more easily. He sleeps in an upright position on nights when he has trouble sleeping comfortably.

By Clairdelune — On Jun 05, 2011

Incredible! Something as simple as a comfortable chair that can bring so much comfort and make recovery quicker. It stands to reason that using a chair to sleep and rest in can ease the strain on breathing.

Compared to getting up from a bed and from a chair, there must be a lot less pain in the chest. I'm surprised they thought of this, way back in the 1940s. I wonder if they use these chairs for any other kinds of hospital patients?

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