What Is Alcohol Cardiomyopathy?
Alcohol cardiomyopathy, a form of dilated cardiomyopathy, is a condition that leads to heart failure as a result of chronic alcohol abuse. Heart failure occurs when the heart can no longer pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs.
People who suffer from heart failure often exhibit a shortness of breath, especially during or following physical exertion, even if the activity is only moderate.
This shortness of breath, however, will also often occur simply upon lying down. Other common symptoms of heart failure include leg swelling and tiredness.
Heart failure is common and expensive to care for, but it can be deadly, especially during the year following diagnosis. For these reasons, it is important that alcohol cardiomyopathy be fully understood so that it can be treated before it leads to heart failure and irreversible heart damage.
The toxicity of alcohol causes this condition by impairing the heart muscle, making it difficult to pump blood adequately. This disease causes the heart to become enlarged and thinned over time. Excessive drinking is the root cause of alcohol cardiomyopathy, and when the disease is severe, it can affect organs and tissues throughout the body beyond the heart.
Who Is Affected?
Men between the ages of 35 – 55 are most commonly diagnosed with alcohol cardiomyopathy, but the condition can affect women as well. Those with alcohol cardiomyopathy usually have a history of heavy and long-term drinking, typically between five to 15 years, with 10 years or more of heavy alcohol exposure being the norm. These people are typically considered to be alcoholics. There is not currently enough sufficient research to associate one particular type of alcohol over another with an increased likelihood of developing alcohol cardiomyopathy.
Studies have shown that alcohol cardiomyopathy is exclusively caused by heavy and/or binge drinking – moderate drinking has not been shown to cause alcohol cardiomyopathy and, in fact, has been shown by some studies to help decrease the risk of heart failure in some individuals.
Signs and Symptoms
There are some common signs and symptoms of alcohol cardiomyopathy, which might help to identify the condition sooner rather than later. It’s important to note, however, that alcohol cardiomyopathy often develops without any symptoms, and sometimes is not diagnosed until the condition has already progressed significantly. When this occurs, the symptoms are often those of heart failure. Some of these signs and symptoms to look out for include:
- Swelling anywhere in the body but especially in the legs, feet or ankles
- Decreased appetite
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing that seems to occur especially when physically active or when lying down
- A feeling of excessive tiredness, weakness or general fatigue
- A cough that contains frothy, pink-tinted or mucus material
- Decreased urination or a need to urinate more than usual during the night
- Heart palpitations
- A rapid or irregular pulse
- Difficulty focusing or remaining alert
If a medical examination is conducted, some of the signs and symptoms of alcohol cardiomyopathy that arise may include:
- Heart sounds that are abnormal
- Lung sounds that are abnormal
- Swelling of the ankles
- A liver that is enlarged
- Weight gain
- Neck veins that are swollen
- Low blood pressure
- Irregular heartbeat
Finally, some of the signs of heart failure as a result of alcohol cardiomyopathy that might be uncovered through detailed evaluation might include:
- A chest x-ray might show an enlarged heart, buildup of fluid in the valves or lungs, and a reduction in pumping function.
- An ECG might show that the chambers of the heart are enlarged or that there are abnormalities in the rhythm of the heart.
- An echocardiogram might show leaking valves, chambers of the heart that are enlarged, or a reduction in pumping efficiency.
- A coronary angiography or a cardiac catheterization might help to rule out blocked arteries.
Coordinating Intervention for a Person with Alcohol Cardiomyopathy
Sometimes people with alcohol abuse issues are not interested in receiving help for their problem, even if it has extended into a serious physical problem, as is the case with alcohol cardiomyopathy. As goes the common refrain, a person needs to first understand that they have a problem before they can address their addiction and be on the road toward a healthy and full recovery. Getting someone to acknowledge their problem can often be the tricky part. Those who care for a person who suffers from alcohol abuse and who might also suffer from alcohol cardiomyopathy might orchestrate an intervention in order to address these issues in the presence of the sufferer and people who love him or her.
An intervention involves gathering people who care about the person in the same room as the alcoholic. During this time, loved ones confront the alcoholic about the problem and the negative ways in which addiction is impacting his or her life. An intervention involves careful planning, acquiring of relevant knowledge, development of consequences each loved one might enact if treatment is denied, and follow-up with the sufferer to ensure a successful recovery process.
Prognosis and Treatment
If a person who has been diagnosed with alcohol cardiomyopathy has severe heart damage, the prognosis for the condition tends to be poor. Once heart damage reaches a certain point in its destruction of this vital organ, it is difficult for the heart or the rest of the body to recover from the damage. However, in cases where the damage is not considered to be severe, the condition can be treated, and in some cases, it can even be reversed.
Treating alcohol cardiomyopathy might involve refraining from drinking alcohol, eating a low-salt diet, and monitoring fluid intake carefully. The heart failure component of this condition might be treated with beta blockers, ACE inhibitors, or diuretics. A defibrillator or pacemaker may also improve the outlook for a patient with congestive heart failure. In addition to these treatment methods, talk therapy and support groups can play a helpful role in a patient’s recovery.
For any patient undergoing treatment for alcohol cardiomyopathy, it is important that the underlying issue of alcoholism or alcohol abuse is addressed and treated on its own. Since a person must drink alcohol at a high volume regularly for a long duration of time to develop alcohol cardiomyopathy, the condition is most often the result of sustained alcoholism. For this reason, issues involving addiction and its underlying causes should be treated by a qualified mental health professional as a part of an overall treatment plan.
Dual Diagnosis Care for Alcohol Abuse
There are many reasons why people drink more than they should. Sometimes a person is more likely to engage in this kind of behavior because a predisposition for alcohol abuse exists in their family. For others, alcohol abuse is a way of self-medicating for another issue that is already in existence, whether it is a mental illness or life stress that seems out of control. If a person is to truly recover fully from alcohol cardiomyopathy, then it is important that these underlying reasons for addictive behavior are discovered and addressed. If they are not, there is an increased chance that a patient being treated for alcohol cardiomyopathy might relapse or begin abusing a different kind of illicit substance.
If you or someone you know is suffering from alcohol abuse issues as well as a mental health condition, dual diagnosis care can help you find lasting recovery. With the right care, physical issues, such as alcohol cardiomyopathy, can also be managed. For more information on a path to wellness, call us today and talk with one of our admissions coordinators about how we can help.
Further Reading About Dilated Cardiomyopathy
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David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.