Chest tightness after alcohol use may be a sign of dangerous heart problems.

Alcohol withdrawal can cause pain in the chest, including chest tightness. If you or a loved one struggle with alcohol abuse, you might wonder how alcohol affects the heart. Doctors know that alcohol can harm the heart, and often tell their patients to avoid alcohol for this reason. However, it is also crucial for people who drink a lot of alcohol to understand that alcohol withdrawal also harms the heart.

If you stop drinking alcohol suddenly after years of alcohol use, the risk of hurting the heart increases. Alcohol withdrawal may cause uncomfortable chest symptoms that can damage the heart. These symptoms can include chest pain after drinking alcohol or a tight chest after drinking alcohol.

Article at a Glance:

Important points to remember about alcohol withdrawal and chest tightness include:

Alcohol withdrawal can increase your risk of heart-related issues

Heart symptoms after drinking alcohol can include chest tightness and pain

Heart-related symptoms can be dangerous and may lead to heart attack, stroke or even sudden death

Seek emergency medical attention if you have chest tightness or pain after alcohol use

How Does Alcohol Withdrawal Harm the Heart?

Medical researchers continue to study how alcohol withdrawal hurts the heart. Doctors know that alcohol withdrawal can damage the heart, but they are still trying to figure out how this happens. However, most medical professionals do know that people who go into alcohol withdrawal are at risk for certain heart complications. These problems can include:

  • Fast heartbeat
  • Abnormal heart rhythm
  • Spasms in the heart’s blood vessels
  • Sudden death

Alcohol and a Fast or Rapid Heartbeat

A rapid heartbeat is a common side effect of alcohol withdrawal syndrome or AWS. Side effects like a fast heartbeat occur because chronic alcohol use changes the chemicals in your brain.

One of the chemicals in your brain, gamma-Aminobutyric acid, or GABA, has a calming effect on the brain. Another chemical in your brain, glutamate, has the opposite effect and excites the brain. When you have been drinking a lot of alcohol for a long time, the effect of GABA in your brain is enhanced, and your brain becomes very sensitive to glutamate.

If you stop drinking suddenly, there will be a lot of glutamate in your brain, and your brain gets over-excited. This stimulation can cause many uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous symptoms, one of which is a fast heartbeat.

Physical symptoms of a fast heartbeat can include:

  • Chest pain, pressure or tightness
  • Fainting
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Feeling like your heart is pounding
  • Shortness of breath

Because AWS can be dangerous, it is important to seek medical help if you struggle with alcohol use and are trying to limit your drinking or stop drinking altogether. An accredited alcohol rehab center like The Recovery Village can help you or a loved one overcome alcohol abuse.

Alcohol and an Abnormal Heart Rhythm

Medical professionals have noticed that sometimes people experience problems with heartbeats immediately following alcohol consumption. This phenomenon is nicknamed holiday heart syndrome.

Most of the time, an irregular heart rhythm problem is temporary and goes away on its own. However, doctors also believe that in some people, an abnormal heart rhythm can cause severe problems.

Symptoms of heart rhythm problems can include:

  • Chest pain, pressure or tightness
  • Feeling like your heart is beating too fast or too slow
  • Feeling like your heart is skipping beats
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating more than normal

It is imperative to seek medical attention if you have symptoms of heart rhythm problems. If heart issues are left untreated, you could develop potentially fatal complications like a stroke.

Alcohol and Spasms in the Heart’s Blood Vessels

Studies show that alcohol use can cause spasms in the heart’s arteries. Arteries are essential because they are the vessels that carry blood from the heart to all the other organs of the body.

When there is a spasm in the arteries, the blood may not be flowing well from the heart to the rest of your body. Spasms in the arteries can, therefore, be highly dangerous. Spasms can even cause a heart attack. Medical professionals think that the more alcohol you drink, the higher your risk of experiencing these spasms.

Although sometimes there will be no symptoms for heart artery spasms, typical symptoms can include:

  • Chest pain, pressure or tightness
  • Pain that spreads from the chest to the neck, left arm, left shoulder or jaw

The pain of a heart artery spasm occurs because blood flow in your body is impaired. These symptoms are similar to some symptoms of a heart attack. Having this kind of pain is a medical emergency, so seek medical help right away if you or a loved one have any of these symptoms.

Alcohol and Sudden Cardiac Death

People who struggle with chronic alcohol use face a higher risk of sudden death than the population as a whole. Studies show that some of the heart problems related to alcohol use, like heart rhythm problems, are also linked to sudden death.

In addition, blood tests have found that drinking alcohol stresses the heart. One study shows that the heart releases certain chemicals into the bloodstream after heavy drinking. Therefore, sudden death may be caused by other heart problems related to alcohol use. However, doctors are not sure why sudden cardiac death happens in people who struggle with alcohol use, and more research is necessary to understand this issue entirely.

If you or a loved one struggle with alcohol use and are trying to quit drinking, our professionals at The Recovery Village are here to help you start your path to a healthier life. Contact us today to learn more.

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Editor – Camille Renzoni
Cami Renzoni is a creative writer and editor for The Recovery Village. As an advocate for behavioral health, Cami is certified in mental health first aid and encourages people who face substance use disorders to ask for the help they deserve. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Jessica Pyhtila, PharmD
Dr. Jessica Pyhtila is a Clinical Pharmacy Specialist based in Baltimore, Maryland with practice sites in inpatient palliative care and outpatient primary care at the Department of Veteran Affairs. Read more

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Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.