Chronic alcohol abuse can have long-lasting effects on a person’s quality of life as well as their health. Heavy drinking can weaken the ability of several vital organs in the body to work properly over time, and result in serious damage.
One of the most important organs in the body that can be harmed through alcohol abuse is the heart. Chronic alcohol abuse can weaken the heart and lead to several health conditions that can vary in their severity.
These cardiac conditions may include:
- arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats)
- high blood pressure
- alcoholic cardiomyopathy (cardiomyopathy caused by chronic alcohol abuse)
Cardiomyopathy is a heart muscle disease that occurs when the heart muscle is thicker or stiffer than it is supposed to be. Cardiomyopathy that has developed as a result of chronic alcohol abuse is known as alcoholic cardiomyopathy (ACM).
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Untreated ACM can become severe and have life-threatening consequences, causing irregular heartbeats and congestive heart failure.
Treating cardiomyopathy caused by alcohol abuse requires treating the core issue of the problem: a person’s drinking. The most effective way to address and overcome chronic alcohol abuse and treat medical concerns is to enter an inpatient rehab program for detox and treatment.
What Causes Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy?
The short answer to what causes alcoholic cardiomyopathy is heavy and typically chronic alcohol abuse. That is, it is a condition that develops over a long period of frequent and heavy drinking.
Cardiomyopathy itself is a heart disease that can have several potential causes and risk factors that don’t involve alcohol, but may be related to other heart conditions or health behaviors. The exact cause of cardiomyopathy, especially in younger adults and children, can be difficult to determine.
What experts do know about alcohol’s effects on the heart is that excessive drinking can weaken the heart over time, affecting the muscle of the heart and its ability to pump blood. When the heart is struggling to pump blood as normal, it can begin expanding and become enlarged. This can cause significant strain and damage, and lead to heart failure.
There are several different types of cardiomyopathy, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). Alcoholic cardiomyopathy is a type of dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), which is the most common type. This affects the heart’s lower and upper chambers, the ventricles, and atria.
Who’s At Risk For Developing Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy?
Alcoholic cardiomyopathy is most common in middle-aged adults who have been abusing alcohol for a number of years or decades. The number of years and amount of alcohol it takes to develop this disease is unclear, although some researchers estimate at least five years of daily drinking can significantly increase a person’s risk for ACM.
Although this isn’t true for every person who abuses alcohol, many people who have abused alcohol for a long time have developed physical dependence and a high tolerance. This can require a person to drink more and more each day to avoid withdrawal effects, resulting in daily heavy drinking.
The definition of heavy drinking, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is:
- for men: drinking more than 15 drinks per week
- for women: drinking more than eight drinks per week
The effects of alcohol can also be more significant and harmful in smaller amounts for some people than others, depending on body size, age, medical conditions, and other factors. This includes damage to the heart.
Symptoms Of Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy
One of the dangers of cardiomyopathy is that people may not always experience symptoms of their condition until it has advanced to a severe state.
Although there are medical tests that can study how well a person’s heart is functioning, many people with alcohol dependence don’t schedule regular visits with their doctor. In the absence of any symptoms, people may also simply be unaware of how their drinking could be impacting their heart.
When symptoms do occur, they are similar to those of congestive heart failure. If symptoms of heart problems (including ACM) do occur, it is important to talk to your doctor or get help right away.
Symptoms of alcoholic cardiomyopathy can include:
- shortness of breath
- fatigue or weakness
- swelling of the arms, legs, feet, or abdomen
- rapid or irregular pulse
- loss of appetite
- coughing up pink mucus
- chest pain
- urinating less often or more frequently
These symptoms are more likely to occur once the disease has advanced. Talking to a doctor about ACM symptoms right away can be important to prevent dangerous outcomes.
How Dangerous Is Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy?
Not everyone who abuses alcohol goes on to develop serious heart problems like ACM, but when someone does, it can be very serious. As the heart weakens, enlarging and functioning less efficiently, it can eventually become unable to perform its essential functions.
Dangers and other problems that can occur with alcoholic cardiomyopathy include:
- heart valve problems
- blood clots in the heart
- irregular heartbeats
- heart failure
A recent research study from 2018 found that about 27.7 percent of patients hospitalized for ACM died within two to six years after hospitalization. Heart damage caused by severe alcohol abuse can be deadly and grow worse without professional treatment.
Can Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy Be Reversed?
Positive outcomes for treating health consequences of alcoholic cardiomyopathy typically grow worse the longer a person has been drinking. The amount a person drinks and other factors can also affect how a person responds to treatment.
Consequences of advanced cases of ACM are unlikely to reverse with treatment, but may be managed with some standard treatments for heart failure.
Components of a treatment plan for alcoholic cardiomyopathy may include:
- beta blocker medications
- ACE inhibitors
- other heart disease medications
- heart transplant (in severe cases)
However, the most important step to take in order to prevent severe consequences of ACM is to stop drinking alcohol.
For people with an alcohol abuse or dependence problem, quitting alcohol is not so easy. Chronic alcohol abuse tends to have far-reaching effects on all aspects of a person’s life, and not just their health. Trying to reduce or stop drinking can be a large and scary change for an alcoholic to face.
The most helpful form of treatment for people who are experiencing heart problems as a result of their drinking is an inpatient treatment program for alcohol abuse.
Alcohol Abuse Treatment At Vertava Health
At Vertava Health, our treatment centers offer customizable treatment programs that include medical detox, as well as behavioral therapy and other effective treatment services. This allows patients to reduce and stop their drinking in a safe and structured environment, while receiving treatment for the core issues underlying their alcohol abuse.
If you are experiencing alcoholic cardiomyopathy as a result of chronic alcohol abuse, you are not alone – and recovery from your alcoholism is possible. Contact us today to find a treatment program that meets your needs.