What is Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy?

An x-ray scan of a heart that's at risk for alcoholic cardiomyopathy
It is a well-known fact that long-term alcohol abuse can affect the liver and cause it to fail. But did you know that other organs, such as the heart, are also at risk when it comes to long-term effects of alcohol use and abuse? Alcohol use can lead to a heart condition called alcoholic cardiomyopathy, which has the potential to progress and lead to congestive heart failure if left untreated.

What is alcoholic cardiomyopathy?

Just like long-term alcohol use can be toxic to the liver, it can also be toxic to the heart. Over time, the toxicity of alcohol can weaken the muscle of the heart. This affects the heart’s ability to pump blood, which in turn begins affecting other organs in the body. Additionally, because it cannot pump the blood as it should, the heart begins to expand in order to hold the excess blood. In turn, the heart becomes thinner and larger, eventually affecting the muscle’s and vessel’s ability to function. Often, alcoholic cardiomyopathy is brought on by a long history of drinking in excess. According to National Institute of Health, “Excessive alcohol intake is reported in a wide range (3-40%) of patients with idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy; furthermore, chronic excessive alcohol consumption may lead to progressive and chronic cardiac dysfunction and can be a possible cause of dilated cardiomyopathy, referred to as alcoholic cardiomyopathy (ACM).” While heavy drinking can cause alcoholic cardiomyopathy, moderate drinking is not thought to be a danger. According to Thomas Jefferson University, “A study of 490,000 men and women found that although mortality increased with heavier drinking, moderate drinking reduced cardiovascular mortality especially in middle-aged subjects.”

What are the symptoms of alcoholic cardiomyopathy?

Alcoholic cardiomyopathy can be dangerous because it may be asymptomatic for some people who have the condition. In other words, no symptoms present themselves until alcoholic cardiomyopathy has already progressed, possibly leading to heart failure. However, when symptoms do present themselves, a physician should be contacted immediately as the alcoholic cardiomyopathy could already have progressed. Such symptoms may include:
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Swelling of the legs, feet, and ankles.
  • Fatigue.
  • Weakness.
  • Dizziness or fainting.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Trouble
  • Rapid and irregular pulse.
  • A cough with pink mucus.
  • Change in urine output.

How is alcoholic cardiomyopathy diagnosed?

If you suspect you may have alcoholic cardiomyopathy, make an appointment with a physician immediately. During the appointment, there will be a physical exam. The pulse and blood pressure will be checked, as well as lungs and heart. During such an exam, a physician can identify certain factors that would lead to an alcoholic cardiomyopathy diagnosis. Such factors include an enlarged heart, a heart murmur, sounds of congestion in the heart and/or lungs, swelling in the jugular veins in the neck, and swelling in legs, ankles, and feet. The doctor will also likely ask about your medical history, including your history with alcohol. Lab testing and diagnostic imaging may also be done. While lab testing won’t lead to an alcoholic cardiomyopathy diagnosis specifically, it can aid in identifying organ damage. X-rays and CT scans can detect an enlarged heart and/or congestion or fluid in the lungs, while electrocardiograms may identify disruption in the heartbeat.

Can alcoholic cardiomyopathy be treated?

While there is no foolproof treatment for alcoholic cardiomyopathy, certain steps can be taken to curb the condition. The first step is to completely stop drinking alcohol, as all it will do is continue to weaken the heart. Certain dietary changes may also be recommended, and doctors may prescribe ACE inhibitors and/or beta-blockers to manage high blood pressure.
Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy: a review. Thomas Jefferson University. George, Anil and Figuerdo, Vincent. 1 October 2011. Accessed 12 September 2016. http://jdc.jefferson.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1010&context=cardiologyfp

Prevention and Treatment of Cardiomyopathy. Heart.org. 24 August 2016. Accessed 12 September 2016. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/More/Cardiomyopathy/Prevention-and-Treatment-of-Cardiomyopathy_UCM_444176_Article.jsp#.V9c85igrJhE

What is Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy?
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