Opioid Use May Trigger Atrial Fibrillation, Researchers Warn

Side effects of opioid painkillers may increase the risk of a heart condition known as atrial fibrillation, according to the findings of a new study. 

Researchers from Yale New Haven Hospital in Connecticut report that the use of some opioids could increase the risk of developing atrial fibrillation by more than a third. The study’s findings also indicate the risk narcotic painkillers pose on the heart is the same, whether the painkillers are abused or used responsibly to treat severe pain.

In findings that will be presented this weekend, at a meeting of the American Heart Association in Chicago, researchers looked at an analysis of medical records of more than 850,000 military veterans between the ages of 25 and 51. Among the veterans studied, 3,000 were diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. Of those who had atrial fibrillation, 29% used opioids. Comparatively, 15% of veterans who didn’t have atrial fibrillation used opioids.

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Overall, using opioids, like Vicodin or Percocet, increased the likelihood of suffering atrial fibrillation by 35%. T risk was elevated even researchers accounted for other heart disease risk factors, pointing to opioids as having an effect on the heart.

Atrial fibrillation is a condition that causes the heart to beat with an abnormal rhythm. People who experience atrial fibrillation may suffer shortness of breath, a feeling of weakness, or feeling like their heart is racing. The condition is dangerous because it can lead to stroke.

Researchers were especially concerned since most of the study participants who developed atrial fibrillation were young and healthy. The average age of people in the study was 38 years old. Typically most people who develop atrial fibrillation are 65 years and older.

The study’s authors speculate that opioids may lead to breathing problems during sleep, or worsen already existing breathing problems, such as obstructive sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a known risk factor for cardiac rhythm disturbances.

The findings come amid an ever worsening opioid abuse crisis in the U.S. However, researchers tracked overall opioid use, not just opioid abuse. They say this indicates opioids are dangerous even when the drugs are not abused and users are not addicted to the painkillers.

Researchers recommend doctors only prescribe opioids as a last resort for pain and only when absolutely necessary.

The findings are considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.


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