Cocaine can cause many side effects in the heart and heart tissue. Irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia, is a common adverse effect of cocaine use. The effect might be described as “heart feeling weird” after using cocaine.
Cocaine changes the heart rhythm by blocking the flow of sodium and potassium ions in heart muscles. The heart has a specialized cell called pacemaker cells that maintain heart rhythm. They do this by passing a small electrical charge between cells. The charge creates a pace or rhythm that tells the muscle cells of the heart when to beat.
Pacemaker cells pass their charges to each other by moving sodium and potassium ions into and out of their cell membranes. Cocaine blocks the flow of sodium cells and stops sodium from passing through heart cell membranes. When sodium ions cannot pass through cell membranes, the electrical charge cannot move from cell to cell. The heartbeat’s pace is slowed down and becomes irregular.
If you experience a fast heart rate after cocaine or a slow heart rate, it might be a symptom of arrhythmia.
Types of Arrhythmias
The heart relies on precise electrical conduction to function and pump blood. Cocaine has been shown to produce several types of arrhythmias. Some examples include:
- Asystole – Tthe absence of a heartbeat. Asystole is often fatal because it means the heart has completely stopped beating or cardiac arrest.
- Bundle branch block – The electrical impulses that pace the heart are slowed down somewhere along their normal pathway. The electrical signals still generate a heart rhythm, but it might be slow or irregular. If the block is serious enough, it can progress to a full heart block and asystole. There might be no symptoms with heart block, or there might be an irregular heartbeat.
- Sinus bradycardia – The heart beats too slowly. The heart normally beats between 60 to 100 beats per minute (bpm). Bradycardia is a heartbeat of less than 60 bpm.
- Sinus tachycardia – The heart beats too fast. Tachycardia is when the heart rate is above 100 bpm.
- Ventricular fibrillation – The heart quivers instead of producing a beat or pumping blood. Quivering happens because electric signals become disorganized and do not fire in a rhythmic pattern. Ventricular fibrillation usually results in cardiac arrest.
Symptoms of Arrhythmias
Arrhythmias are most likely to happen within the first few hours of taking cocaine. Arrhythmias are difficult to predict and can be deadly. If you suspect you or a loved one is experiencing an arrhythmia after using cocaine, call 911. Some symptoms of arrhythmias include:
- Bradycardia, or slower than normal heartbeat
- Chest pain
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Fluttering in the chest
- Shortness of breath
- Tachycardia, or faster than normal heartbeat
Preventing and Treating Arrhythmias
Heart arrhythmias from cocaine can only be prevented by not using cocaine. If you have experienced symptoms of arrhythmia and are using cocaine, it is dangerous to continue using it. It might be time to consider addiction and detox treatment.
Arrhythmias are treated in a hospital or emergency department. The medical team will use medications to correct the abnormal heart rate. If the arrhythmia leads to cardiac arrest, CPR and Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) techniques may be used. An Automated External Defibrillator (AED) might be used if the arrhythmias is a shockable rhythm. An AED sends a small electrical charge through the chest wall to stop arrhythmias and allow the heart to correct its own rhythm.
Cardiac arrest is often fatal, so treatment for cocaine addiction should be considered if you experience heart arrhythmias.
Key Points: Cocaine Use and Heartbeat
Cocaine is very toxic to many organs, but mostly the heart. Some keys points to remember about irregular heartbeat:
- The heart has an internal electric rhythm that generates pumping
- Cocaine disrupts the rhythmic, electrical signals
- Some arrhythmias have no symptoms, but some are fatal
- Arrhythmias are most likely to occur in the hours after using cocaine
- If you experience arrhythmia symptoms, call 911
- Treat cocaine addiction to prevent arrhythmia
If you or a loved one live with cocaine addiction, call The Recovery Village today. By using individualized treatment plans, The Recovery Village ensures that each patient gets the treatment that will work best for them.
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ACLS Training Center. “Effects of Illegal Drugs on the Heart.” 2019. Accessed May 20, 2019.
Circulation. “Cardiovascular Effects of Cocaine | Circulation.” 2013. Accessed May 20, 2019.
Egred, M. “Cocaine and the Heart.” 2005. Accessed May 20, 2019.
Mayo Clinic. “Bundle Branch Block – Symptoms and Causes.” 2018. Accessed May 20, 2019.
Mayo Clinic “Heart Arrhythmia – Symptoms and Causes.” 2019. Accessed May 20, 2019.