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Nov 06, 2018

Opioids May Increase Risk for Abnormal Heart Rhythm

Study adds to growing concerns about prescription opioid use and heart health.

Besides being highly addictive, opioids may also increase risk for a common heart disorder known to cause stroke, based on a study of more than 850,000 military veterans. These findings will be presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2018 in Chicago and add to grave concerns about the opioid epidemic, which claims more than 42,000 deaths each year.

Opioids are a class of drugs that include prescription pain relievers like oxycontin and Vicodin, as well as illegal drugs like heroin and fentanyl. While there’s no question that opioids are highly addictive and can cause life-threatening overdoses, their effect on the heart is less clear.

To learn more, the recent study explored the impact of opioid use on risk for an abnormal heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation, often referred to as AFib, is an irregular and often rapid heart rate, which increases risk for stroke and other serious complications.

The study included medical record data from more than 857,000 U.S. veterans, less than 1% of whom had a diagnosis of AFib. Participants were between the ages of 25 and 51, and one in eight were female.

After reviewing medical history, researchers found that nearly 29% of patients with AFib had taken prescription opioids, compared with 15% among those without atrial fibrillation. This translated to opioid users having a 34% increase in AFib risk compared to non-opioid users.

Authors note that findings were especially concerning, as study participants were generally young and healthy. Risk for AFib increases with age and usually peaks later in life, after age 65. However, the average age of study participants was only 38 in this study, highlighting the early onset of this condition.

“We all know that the opioid epidemic is taking an unspeakable human toll through addiction, abuse and overdose,” said study lead investigator Jonathan Stock, MD, a resident physician at Yale New Haven Hospital in Connecticut. “But our findings suggest that the toll may be even greater when we consider the cardiovascular effects opioids may have,” says Stock.

Atrial fibrillation is a common condition that affects an estimated 6.1 million Americans. Since AFib drastically increases risk for stroke, prevention is key. It’s possible that reducing opioid use may help cut down on risk for atrial fibrillation.

Of course, authors note that more research is needed to understand exactly how opioids impact risk for AFib and cardiovascular health. However, Stock believes prescription opioids should only be used as a last resort for pain management. He explains, “Opioid use, by itself, must be taken seriously and efforts should be made not only to reduce opioid abuse and overdoses but to ensure patients are being prescribed opioids only when absolutely necessary.”

Questions for You to Consider

  • What is atrial fibrillation?

  • Atrial fibrillation is an irregular heart rhythm caused by abnormal, chaotic electrical impulses in the heart’s upper chambers, the atria. These electrical impulses, which interfere with the heart’s natural pacemaker, fire so rapidly the atria cannot beat with a regular rhythm or squeeze out blood effectively. Instead, they merely quiver while the ventricles, the heart’s lower chambers, beat rapidly.

Featured Video

AFib affects more than 3 million people in the United States.


Bob's Story: Atrial Fibrillation

Learn how Bob Ek and his cardiologist, Scott J. Pollak, MD, FACC, work as a team to manage Bob’s atrial fibrillation.

Kathy Webster is CardioSmart

Kathy Webster was born with a heart defect that contributed to her developing atrial fibrillation. After two open heart surgeries, Kathy is dedicated to living an active and healthy lifestyle.

Marcus McCleery is CardioSmart

An AFib patient, Marcus lost a considerable amount of weight through diet and exercise. He maintains his heart-healthy ways and passes them on to fellow heart patients through volunteer work.

Fatty Acids May Help Prevent Recurrence of Atrial Fibrillation

N-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids found in fish and fish oils help control AFib.

Infographic: AFib