How Does Opioid Abuse Affect Your Heart?

It’s no secret that drugs, especially opioids, are bad for your health. It’s a message that we are told from our youth. In particular, the current opioid crisis has killed more than 700,000 people in the United States, many of whom succumbed to heart issues. In honor of National Heart Month this February, let’s shed light on the ways that opioid addiction and abuse adversely affect heart health.

Heart Infections

2019 study published by the American Heart Association shows that the rate of heart infection in the United States has increased drastically as a result of the opioid epidemic. From 2002 to 2016, the number of Americans hospitalized for infective endocarditis who also abused drugs doubled – from 8% to 16%. This was particularly severe in the American midwest, where the number of heart infections related to illegal drug use increased by five percent… every year. 

Infective endocarditis is when bacteria enter the valves, lining, or inner chamber of the heart, usually through the mouth, respiratory system, stomach, skin, or urinary tract. This can lead to chest pain, fever, chills, fatigue, nausea, and joint and muscle pain. The condition can be treated by antibiotics, but without treatment, it can cause organ damage, heart failure, and fatal strokes. Twenty percent of the 34,000 people who contract infective endocarditis every year die as a result.

Opioid drug users who contract infective endocarditis usually do so as a result of bacteria-infected heroin needles. According to doctors, the best way to address drug-related infective endocarditis is to rehabilitate the opioid addiction, in addition to just treating the infection itself. 

Heart Rhythm Disorder

Opioid abuse also leads to an increased risk for heart rhythm disorder, according to a 2018 study of 850,000 people done by the American Heart Association. The use of opioid drugs was shown to increase a person’s risk for atrial fibrillation, which is a dangerous heart condition known to cause strokes, by 34%.

Atrial fibrillation, which is characterized by the chaotic quivering of the heart’s upper chambers, is the most common heart rhythm disorder and is a leading cause of strokes. Because this is a risk even for those who do take opioids only medicinally, the 2018 study suggests that opioid use is dangerous even to those who are not addicted to it or abuse it. This highlights the importance of limiting opioid use, even as a prescribed medicine for pain, and especially avoiding recreational use. 

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Other Heart Health Issues Associated with Opioid Use

Bradycardia  

Somewhat the opposite of atrial fibrillation, bradycardia is a slowed heart rate. This is common in opioid users, usually caused by a slowing of the sinus node also known as sick sinus syndrome. Bradycardia can make it much more difficult for people to tolerate exercise, as their heart rates will not be able to increase normally as they should during a work-out.

Vasodilation 

Vasodilation refers to the dilation of the blood vessels. It is one of the possible side effects of opioid use. This can cause low blood pressure, which means the body has a harder time pumping blood to the heart. One of the most common results is the situation in which a person’s blood pressure drops rapidly when they stand up quickly, often causing lightheadedness and even fainting.

Takotsubo cardiomyopathy (TC) 

Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, also referred to as broken heart syndrome, is a temporary heart condition that causes the heart’s main pumping chamber, the left ventricle, to weaken. While it is often caused by severe emotional or physical stress (which is how it got its nickname), researchers are also finding a connection between TC and opioid withdrawal. The symptoms of TC, which include chest pain, breathlessness, and collapse, can resemble a heart attack, but there is currently no treatment for it. 

The Bottom Line

As time goes on and the opioid crisis continues to plague the United States, the public is developing more and more of an understanding of it as what it really is: a public health concern rather than a criminal justice issue. Victims of opioid abuse and addiction are suffering from a disease that unfortunately often leads to other conditions such as the heart health issues mentioned above. If you or a loved one are suffering from opioid abuse, it’s important to be aware of the possible health issues that can result from your struggle. Rejecting any possible social stigma associated with addiction and focusing on getting help and rehabilitating can save your heart and save your life.

About the Author

Paula Nicola, M.D.
Dr. Nicola is the Facility Director at Renu. She is a trained and board certified medical doctor with specialized training in addiction medicine.

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