Can Alcohol Withdrawal Cause Chest Tightness?

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Angina is chest pain or tightness resulting from a lack of oxygen to the heart. It is often caused by an undiagnosed heart condition, such as blood vessel blockages, heart disease, cardiac rate and rhythm disorders, or a genetic disorder.

Chronic, heavy alcohol use and withdrawal can exacerbate symptoms of an existing heart problem or trigger new cardiovascular complications in previously healthy individuals. Understanding the impact of drinking on your heart is crucial to appreciate the health benefits of recovery.

If you are experiencing chest tightness due to substance use or withdrawal, it is important to seek emergency medical attention for sudden, severe, or new symptoms. A trusted healthcare provider should always address ongoing chest or abdominal discomfort.

Treatment for alcohol use disorder is available to assist you on the path to total wellness. Guardian Recovery offers programs such as alcohol detox and nutrition therapy to treat the emotional and physical components of alcohol use.

Our treatment advisors are available 24/7 to answer any questions you have about our program model and specific therapies. Reach out today to discover how we can work with you on your journey to sobriety, and read on to learn more about the link between alcohol and chest tightness.

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How Does Alcohol Withdrawal Harm the Heart?

Alcohol’s effects on the body are well-researched. The central nervous system (CNS), consisting of the brain and spinal cord, is altered in numerous ways by drinking. Alcohol acts as a CNS depressant, reducing brain activity responsible for blood pressure and heart rate. You may experience an erratic heart rhythm, such as a fluttering sensation in your chest, and your blood pressure may drop.

Once your body has fully broken down and eliminated the alcohol in your system, the depressant effects wear off and give way to the excitatory brain activity responsible for high blood pressure and abnormal heart rate or rhythm. In the case of withdrawal, these effects may be more pronounced as your system attempts to readjust after long-term use.

Alcohol & Fast or Rapid Heartbeat

Your heart rate is a product of factors like activity level, hydration status, and overall cardiovascular health. A normal resting heart rate is 60 to 100 beats per minute, although some individuals with extensive physical training may have a lower reading. Rates outside this range can indicate problems with your heart, blood vessels, or brain.

When consuming alcohol, the CNS depressant effects initially lower your blood pressure, which means your arteries relax and dilate (widen). However, this means blood is not reaching other parts of your body as efficiently, so the heart pumps more rapidly to compensate. After one or two drinks, research indicates blood pressure may rise, and sustained tachycardia (rapid heart rate) is the result of compensatory circulatory mechanisms and dehydration caused by alcohol.

With long-term drinking, your body becomes used to receiving calming, inhibitory messages from alcohol. During withdrawal, however, too many excitatory brain chemicals are firing without alcohol’s depressant effects, which stresses the cardiovascular system. You may experience a rapid heart rate and elevated blood pressure during this time.

Alcohol & Abnormal Heart Rhythm

Unlike heart rate, heart rhythm is much less variable in healthy individuals. A skipped beat or flutter here and there is usually no cause for concern, but prolonged rhythm disorders represent a serious health threat.

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) is an abnormal heart rhythm characterized by the upper chambers of the heart (atria) fluttering rather than fully contracting. Blood does not move efficiently to the lower chambers (ventricles) for circulation to the lungs and the rest of the body. Drinking increases heart rate variability, leading to irregular patterns in rhythm.

Symptoms of AFib Include:

  • Sensation of an irregular heartbeat.
  • Heart pounding or fluttering.
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness.
  • Fatigue.
  • Shortness of breath with minimal activity.
  • Chest pain or tightness.

Not all cases of atrial fibrillation show symptoms. In cases of chronic drinking, AFib can become permanent. When left untreated, it raises the risk of stroke and heart failure.

Alcohol & Spasms in the Heart’s Blood Vessels

In addition to delivering blood to all tissues in your body, the heart must also supply oxygenated blood to itself. Coronary arteries surround your heart and keep the heart muscle healthy.

Prinzmetal angina is a condition of chest pain and tightness caused by variable coronary artery spasms. The spasm may develop after exposure to substances such as alcohol or cocaine that cause the arteries to constrict spontaneously. Tightened blood vessels prevent adequate blood from reaching the heart tissue (ischemia), leading to cardiac injury and arrhythmias if not addressed medically.

Alcohol & Sudden Cardiac Death

Sudden cardiac death occurs when the heart abruptly stops beating (cardiac arrest) or develops a dangerous rhythm that cannot be corrected. Despite life-saving measures, these conditions are fatal within one hour of symptom onset.

The risk of sudden cardiac death is greatest among people who have five or more alcoholic beverages per day. As previously mentioned, alcohol interferes with your nervous system’s ability to maintain a proper heart rhythm. Ventricular fibrillation (VFib) is a dangerous, commonly fatal arrhythmia that renders the heart unable to pump blood to itself or the rest of the body.

Taking certain medications that interfere with normal heart rhythm or having a congenital heart disorder raises the risk of cardiac death, which is further increased by alcohol use.

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Are Other Types of Chest Pain Related to Alcohol Withdrawal?

Apart from cardiac causes of chest pain and tightness associated with alcohol use and withdrawal, drinking can affect other parts of your body that may cause referred chest discomfort. This type of pain is usually due to inflammation of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract from prolonged or heavy alcohol use.

Alcohol negatively impacts GI stability. It disrupts the balance between helpful and harmful bacteria in your stomach, leading to the overgrowth of harmful bacteria. These unwanted organisms trigger inflammation. When coupled with excess acid secretion, inflammation causes heartburn, pain, and nausea. Left untreated, patches of inflammation promote mucosal erosion, causing stomach ulcers or gastric cancer in later stages.

The referred chest pain you may experience with alcohol use is due to conditions such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), esophagitis, achalasia, esophageal spasm, or rings and webs developing in the esophagus. With sustained abstinence, many of these conditions can resolve or lessen in intensity.

Is Chest Tightness an Emergency?

Chest pain and tightness should be taken seriously, as they can indicate a number of potentially life-threatening health issues.

Call 911 Immediately if You Experience the Following:

  • Sharp, stabbing, or dull, achy chest pain radiating to your back, neck, arms, or jaw.
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness.
  • Loss of consciousness.
  • Feeling of impending doom.
  • Trouble breathing.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Sweating.
  • Weakness in your extremities.
  • Trouble speaking.
  • Confusion.
  • Facial drooping.
  • Severe or persistent headache.

These symptoms may be a sign of heart attack, stroke, or other critical cardiovascular disorders.

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Chest pain can be quite frightening. Long-term discomfort interferes with multiple aspects of daily life. While chest tightness and associated heart conditions have numerous risk factors, perhaps none is more preventable than alcohol use. Although moderate to severe drinking is a significant cause of heart problems, some effects are reversible with alcohol cessation.

Guardian Recovery knows that alcohol use affects everyone differently, so your treatment must be tailored to your specific health needs. Our individualized approach allows us to focus on your entire health history and create a plan to help you meet your wellness goals.

Our admission process is simple: Once you reach out, we will provide a free, no-obligation health insurance benefit check and complimentary assessment. The entire process takes just 15 minutes at one of our local facilities. Contact us today for more information about how we can help you heal.

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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

  1. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-attack/angina-chest-pain
  2. https://opentext.wsu.edu/biopsychological-effects-alcohol-drugs/chapter/chapter-11-alcohol/
  3. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/imagepages/18032.htm#:~:text=Overview,to%20100%20beats%20per%20minute.
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32609894/
  5. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/28/well/eat/alcohol-heart-rate-effects.html
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK441882/
  7. https://www.heart.org/en/news/2021/11/30/irregular-heartbeat-risk-linked-to-frequent-alcohol-use-in-people-under-40
  8. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/nejmoa1817591
  9. https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/atrial_fibrillation.htm
  10. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/atrial-fibrillation/complications/
  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430776/#:~:text=Prinzmetal%20angina%20(vasospastic%20angina%20or,to%20abnormal%20coronary%20artery%20spasm.
  12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507854/#:~:text=Sudden%20cardiac%20death%20(SCD)%20is,to%20maintain%20perfusion%20and%20life.
  13. https://www.aafp.org/pubs/afp/issues/2000/0301/p1456.html#:~:text=The%20risk%20of%20ventricular%20arrhythmia,than%20five%20drinks%20per%20day).
  14. https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/heart_attack.htm#:~:text=What%20is%20a%20heart%20attack,%2Dheaded%2C%20or%20unusually%20tired.
  15. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/15851-gerd-non-cardiac-chest-pain
  16. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5513683/
  17. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4046814/
  18. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/peptic-ulcer/symptoms-causes/syc-20354223
  19. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/add.15147

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

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Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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