As February marks “Heart Health Month,” you’ll see plenty of tips for eating well, exercising regularly, and living in ways that keep your heart healthy and strong. But according to the American Heart Association, there’s another factor at play that hinders your heart health— opioid use.
How exactly do opioids impact the heart? Let’s take a closer look.
Opioids can throw off your heart’s normal rhythm.
Your heart is like a pump. It’s a true workhorse, beating about 60 to 100 times per minute to supply oxygen-rich blood to your muscles, cells, nerves, organs, and more (1).
Recent studies show opioid use increases the likelihood that your heart rhythm goes out of sync—by a whopping 34 percent (2). These irregular heartbeats—called arrhythmias—mean your heart beats too quickly, too slowly, or with an irregular pattern.
At minimum, arrhythmias can harm your ability to do normal activities like play sports, take a walk, or climb up stairs. At worst, they can lead to life-threatening blood clots, heart attack, stroke, and heart disease (3).
Once the heart’s rhythm is off, it can feel harder to participate in high intensity exercise—and may even be dangerous. Opioids can decrease endurance, decrease strength, cause mood changes, and slow down reaction times, causing more injuries. Athletes who are prescribed opioids for sports injury often find their performance is negatively impacted for these reasons.
Opioids can increase your risk for heart infections.
Injectable opioids such as heroin are known to cause heart infections called endocarditis. In fact, between 2012 and 2017, there was a 436 percent increase in drug-related heart infections (4).
The culprit? Contaminated needles used to inject opioids send deadly bacteria into the bloodstream. The same research suggests most of those who end up hospitalized with heart infections first abused opioid painkillers. But why is this so important?
Using or abusing opioids can be a gateway to riskier behaviors and more dangerous drugs—ones that directly harm your heart health. In order to lower risk for addiction and protect your heart, it’s best to avoid opioids or find alternative pain relief methods to opioids, if possible.
Opioid abuse increases the risk for cardiac arrest.
Opioid overdose is a leading cause of injury-related death for those ages 25 to 54 in the nation (5). While opioids may temporarily decrease pain, abusing them can cause a great deal of stress to your body—and that includes your heart.
Cardiac arrest is the sudden loss of heart function that causes unresponsiveness and loss of consciousness. In short, cardiac arrest means the heart stops suddenly, eventually shutting down other vital organs like the lungs, brain, and more.
According to the American Heart Association, opioid-induced cardiac arrests are a significant cause of death in the United States and frequently occur in young individuals at home or in a private setting—where help is far away (6). Avoiding opioids can help lower the risk for sudden heart issues such as cardiac arrest.
This Heart Health Month, Just Say “I Know” to Opioids.
Armed with the knowledge on the dangers of opioids, you can use your voice to say “I know” if you’re ever in a situation where opioids are offered. You know all the ways opioids can harm your body, mind, relationships, and life. You know you have a choice. And you know how to walk away.
This month, and every month after, you can protect your heart health by taking the pledge to live a healthy life—one that does not include opioids.
Created in 2018, GameChanger is a student-powered movement with focus on substance misuse prevention among youths. We connect students, educators, and communities with education, training, coaching, and support services to prevent opioid and other drug use before it starts.
- Heart and Circulatory System. KidsHealth.Org. September 2018. Accessed from: https://kidshealth.org/en/teens/heart.html
- Opioid use may increase risk of dangerous heart rhythm disorder. American Heart Association. 05 November 2018. Accessed from: https://newsroom.heart.org/news/opioid-use-may-increase-risk-of-dangerous-heart-rhythm-disorder
- How Opioid Abuse Affects Heart Health. Marston-Salem, Natalie. Fountain Hills Recovery. 12 February 2021. Accessed from: https://fountainhillsrecovery.com/blog/opioids-and-heart-health/
- Opioid Use Associated With Dramatic Rise in Dangerous Heart Infection. American College of Cardiology. 06 March 2019. Accessed from: https://www.acc.org/about-acc/press-releases/2019/03/06/10/36/opioid-use-associated-with-dramatic-rise-in-dangerous-heart-infection
- Experts urge caution, increased education about opioid use for people with heart disease. American Heart Association. 19 August 2021. Accessed from: https://newsroom.heart.org/news/experts-urge-caution-increased-education-about-opioid-use-for-people-with-heart-disease
- Opioid-induced cardiac arrests are focus of new report. American Heart Association. 08 March 2021. Accessed from: https://www.heart.org/en/news/2021/03/08/opioid-induced-cardiac-arrests-are-focus-of-new-report