Cardiomyopathy and Alcohol Use
Long-term alcohol abuse and excessive drinking can come with far more dangers than addiction. While some of the potential diseases that result from it may be rare, they can become serious quickly–especially when they involve a patient’s heart.
Cardiomyopathy is one of those rare but dangerous results. While its causes can range from family-inherited genes to viral infections and high blood pressure, excessive alcohol use is also among them.
What is Cardiomyopathy?
Cardiomyopathy describes any type of disorder that affects the heart muscle, weakening its ability to pump blood through the body. Unlike many other heart ailments, it doesn’t become more likely with age, and once it appears, its symptoms and effects tend to worsen over time. Combined, these two factors make cardiomyopathy the leading cause of heart transplants.
How Alcohol Can Cause Cardiomyopathy
Often, the exact cause of cardiomyopathy is never found. But alcohol abuse is among the most common reasons it may appear, causing the heart to stretch and enlarge. While relatively rare, alcohol becomes more likely to cause cardiomyopathy with excessive alcohol use. Excessive alcohol use is defined by the CDC as more than 8 drinks per week for women and more than 15 drinks per week for men.
While this disease appears most often among men between the ages of 35 and 50, other demographics are affected as well. Women and younger adults can be almost as vulnerable, especially when they have a history of heavy drinking for multiple years, which is one of the most common reasons for starting to develop symptoms.
Over those years, the alcohol tends to wear down the heart through temporary increases in heart rate and blood pressure. These irregularities weaken the heart muscle over time while also causing it to enlarge in order to account for its lower strength. The result is a type of dilated cardiomyopathy, in which the heart changes shape because its muscles are stretching too much.
This condition tends to most frequently occur in the lower heart chambers on both the left and right. These areas are more easily stretched and can be more susceptible to weakening muscles. These two chambers hold the primary responsibility for pumping blood to both lungs and the rest of the body. Thus, weakened muscles that lead to stretched chambers can result in symptoms felt across the entire body.
The Symptoms of Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy
Alcoholic cardiomyopathy is a chronic problem, eventually leading to heart failure. But its short-term symptoms can be significant as well.
While not all patients experience symptoms, those that do experience the sensory effects of this condition experience:
- Chest pains and shortness of breath, especially when participating in sports or other strenuous activities.
- Fatigue and weakness, to the point of feeling lightheaded or even passing out.
- Loss of muscle mass, even when exercising or performing other physical activities.
- Decrease in appetite
- Coughing that can result in mucus
- Heart palpitations
- Swelling of legs, ankles, and feet
None of these symptoms, of course, can or should automatically lead to the assumption or self-diagnosis of alcoholic cardiomyopathy. Many different ailments can result in symptoms like decreased appetite or leg and lower extremity swelling, so talking to a medical professional first is crucial.
A doctor will examine your physical symptoms while also listening to your heart and lungs. Imaging tests like echocardiograms, chest x-rays, MRIs, and CT scans can detect changes in the heart’s shape or determine how tracers flow through the heart to determine a potential ailment. These tests, in combination with knowledge about the patient’s frequency of alcohol consumption, can lead to the diagnosis of alcoholic cardiomyopathy.
Potential Treatments for Affected Patients
The first and most important recommendation from a doctor will likely be reducing or eliminating alcohol impact. Of course, that can be a difficult change to make especially when withdrawal symptoms enter the equation. Therapy to build a guided plan to recovery can be an important part of taking this step.
Treating the Symptoms
If the therapy and rehab are successful and abstention lasts beyond therapy, most patients are able to recover from alcoholic cardiomyopathy. Symptoms continue to improve as the heart begins to recover and go slowly back to its previous strength. During therapy, treatments like anti-inflammatory medications to reduce swelling can be effective ways to treat the symptoms in the course of the long-term recovery.
A medical professional may also recommend an adjusted diet to aid in the recovery. That typically includes low sodium and cholesterol, while focusing on strong vitamin and mineral intake. These adjustments can provide the heart with the nutrients it needs to recover over time.
With the right treatment and therapy, it will begin to improve starting three months after changes are put in place. However, for severe cases, symptoms may not begin to alleviate until 12 or more months after the beginning of treatment.
Treatment for Severe Cases
When caught early enough and with the right therapy, patients can recover fully. In more severe cases or when treatment does not start early enough, the condition may become chronic. In that case, patients may need a pacemaker to stabilize their heart rhythm, surgery to repair the valves, or even a heart transplant to truly recover.
Making the Connection and Finding Treatment Options for Cardiomyopathy and Alcohol
While cardiomyopathy can have many potential causes, alcoholic cardiomyopathy is unique because it can be directly affected by the patient’s behavior. It is both caused by excessive alcohol use and can be treated by cutting out alcohol use.
This makes a concerning progressive heart disease potentially easier to manage. Recovery can be long and arduous, but it is possible and can lead to the alleviation of symptoms and return to health. With the right therapy and treatment partner, patients can feel safe knowing that their condition can improve.