Brain and Body

Active Marijuana Use May Double the Risk of Heart Muscle Malfunction, Study Finds

November 14, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Photo credit: Rafael Castillo/Flickr (CC by SA 2.0)

Based on an analysis of over 33,000 patients who were hospitalized with stress cardiomyopathy.  

Presenting at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2016, researchers explain how active marijuana use might double the risk of an uncommon heart muscle malfunction, stress cardiomyopathy, which can mimic the symptoms of a heart attack.

According to John Hopkins Medicine, stress cardiomyopathy, also known as “broken heart syndrome,” is a sudden weakening of the heart muscle that reduces the organ’s ability to pump, leading to symptoms like dizziness, chest pain, shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting.

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It’s well known that intense emotional stress can bring on “broken heart syndrome,” but now, researchers posit that active marijuana use might also be linked to a higher chance of stress cardiomyopathy.

"The effects of marijuana, especially on the cardiovascular system, are not well known yet,” Amitoj Singh, study co-author and chief cardiology fellow at St. Luke's University Health Network, said in a press release. “With its increasing availability and legalization in some states, people need to know that marijuana may be harmful to the heart and blood vessels in some people.”

The researchers combed through data from the Nationwide Inpatient Sample, including 33,343 people who were hospitalized with stress cardiomyopathy between 2003-2011. Less than one percent of this sample were identified as marijuana smokers.

The marijuana users tended to be younger than the non-users, with fewer cardiovascular risk factors, like high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol. However, despite being younger with less cardiovascular risk factors, the marijuana users were almost twice as likely to develop stress cardiomyopathy compared to non-smokers.

Further, the marijuana smokers were significantly more likely than non-users to go into cardiac arrest and to require an implanted defibrillator to help detect and smooth out dangerously abnormal heart rhythms, the researchers found.

"This development of stress cardiomyopathy in younger patients who used marijuana suggests a possible link that needs to be further investigated," said Sahil Agrawal, M.D., co-author and also a chief cardiology fellow at St. Luke's.

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Singh recommends that marijuana users who develop symptoms like chest pain and shortness of breath should head to a healthcare provider to be evaluated.

However, it’s important to note the study’s limitations. Although the researchers found a link between marijuana use and stress cardiomyopathy, the study wasn’t designed to prove a cause and effect. Plus, active marijuana use was identified either by a marker in the patient’s urine or by information provided by the patient, and self-reported data isn’t always accurate.

Still, as marijuana continues to become more readily available through legalization and decriminalization policy change, it’s more critical than ever to understand its potential effects — both beneficial and adverse — on health.

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