Cocaine has put a sudden end to the lives of countless numbers of young, fit individuals, many in their teens and 20s, most of whom were completely unaware of the risks. This is why the drug has earned the dubious distinction of the “perfect heart attack drug.”
Heart attack danger doesn’t increase with long-term use of cocaine, and in fact, sudden cardiac death isn’t related to frequency or amount used. Recreational cocaine users are affected as much as serious addicts and even first-time or occasional users are at extreme risk.
Len Bias, a University of Maryland All-American basketball player who died in 1986, is a sad example of the deadly nature of cocaine use. Bias, a young athlete with no sign of a heart ailment and no prior indication of drug use, collapsed and died within minutes of smoking an unusually pure form of cocaine. It is believed that the evening of his death - a celebration of his selection by a major National Basketball League team, was likely his first experimentation with cocaine.
How Cocaine Affects the Heart
Cocaine affects the heart through a number of complex processes. For example, Researchers at Chicago’s Mt. Sinai Hospital determined that cocaine users have abnormal blood flow in the heart’s small vessels. As a result, vessels are dilated, which increases the risk of chest pain, shortness of breath, and heart attack.
Cocaine is also responsible for thickening and stiffening of the heart’s walls, which means the heart is less efficient and access to blood and oxygen are reduced or blocked as the heart has difficulty keeping up with the body’s circulatory requirements. The heart becomes abnormally enlarged due to the stress caused by the increased workload. As blood pressure increases, stroke is a possibility.
It is estimated that nearly half of all cocaine users have enlarged hearts, a condition also known as cardiomyopathy. Cocaine use can also trigger myocarditis and endocarditis, inflammation of the heart and the heart muscle.
Hospital visits for chest pain are common, accounting for approximately 40 percent of all hospital visits by cocaine users. This is why young people admitted to emergency rooms with chest pain or other heart attack symptoms are typically asked if they have used cocaine.
Severely irregular heart rate and rhythm are also frequent contributing factors to sudden cardiac arrest.
As in Len Bias’ case, unpredictability of the drug contributes to its dangers and it’s difficult to gauge the possible risks. Purchasing cocaine from a known provider may minimize the danger, but is no guarantee of safety. The drug may be abnormally pure, which increases the risk of overdose, or it may be cut with substances ranging from baking soda to rat poison.
Drug and alcohol addiction and rehab are often necessary for cocaine users who are unable to stop, and withdrawal from cocaine must be medically monitored. A thorough medical examination must be conducted to assess the condition of the heart. The results help clinicians and medical providers determine appropriate, safe treatment that help people stop using cocaine and minimize the risk of further risks to health and wellbeing.