The Impact of Opioids on the Cardiovascular System

Opioids are defined as a particular class of drugs used to reduce pain. The name is derived from the original ingredient, opium, which comes from the poppy plant. Opioids originally referred to certain legally prescribed drugs including OxyContin, Fentanyl, hydrocodone and morphine.

However, the National Institute of Drug Abuse has expanded the definition to include legally prescribed opiates and illegal drugs such as heroin. Opioids have a definite impact on the cardiovascular system and more information is being discovered by organizations including the American Heart Association (AHA).

Opioids increase AFib risk

AHA findings released November 5, 2018 reveal that those using opioids are 34 percent more likely to develop Atrial Fibrillation, commonly known as AFib. When AFib occurs, the heartbeat fibrillates (quivers) and does not move blood properly from the heart’s upper chamber, the atria, to the lower chambers, called ventricles. The heartbeats in the upper and lower chambers are out of sync. The ventricles don’t move blood evenly to the arteries. Blood can gather in the heart and clots may result. They can enter an artery leading to the brain, causing a stroke.

About 140,000 Americans die from stroke annually, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). About 795,000 strokes occur each year and stroke is the fifth likely cause of death, with heart attacks ranking first.  The impact of AFib is significant among stroke victims.

AFib usually appears as people age, surfacing at about age sixty-five. However, the AHA study showed that among those who use opioids, the average age was only thirty-eight. Those conducting the study found this statistic to be of particular concern.

Illegal drugs and the heart

Although legal prescriptions are monitored by the prescribing physician or cardiologist and the results felt by the patient are closely observed, those taking illegal drugs, including the opioid heroin, are at great risk. Relating directly to the cardiovascular system, chronic heroin injection can cause scars within blood veins, as well as bacterial infections in the veins and the heart valves. Blood vessels may also become clogged because certain substances in heroin do not dissolve properly.

Noticeable negative effects of opioid use

The purpose of prescribed opioids is to reduce moderate or severe pain. Side effects may appear, including drowsiness, confusion or nausea. Additionally, feelings of euphoria or confusion, nausea or constipation may develop. Dry mouth or vomiting may signal an improper reaction. Of particular note, slowed breathing, another possible result of opioid use, may cause a condition called hypoxia which prevents enough oxygen from reaching the brain.

The CDC also points out that physical dependence or tolerance may also occur. Depression, low tolerance to pain and lower testosterone levels may become noticeable, as well.

Misusing prescription opioids is dangerous

When taken as prescribed for an appropriate length of time, prescription opioids can act as they should to relieve pain. When they are misused, they can be very dangerous. The National Institute of Drug Abuse has pointed out several ways in which prescription opioids are improperly used. The first of the the top three methods is taking the prescription in a way they were not prescribed. Following that intentional or accidental problem is taking someone else’s prescription. Taking them for the desired effect of euphoria is the third of the noted red flags.

The importance of consultation

Because of the impact that opioids can have on the cardiovascular system, it is extremely important to keep the prescribing physician apprised of the body’s reaction to them. Regular appointments to consult with the physician during the prescription of such medication are strongly advised.

To learn more about the impact of opioids and other drugs on the cardiovascular system, log on to vascularhealthclinics.org.