Alcoholic cardiomyopathyis a heart condition that stems from drinking excessive amounts of alcohol over time. As a result of alcohol abuse, the heart weakens to a point where this vital organ cannot pump blood efficiently. Essentially, the alcohol has a toxic effect on the heart, which causes the muscle to enlarge, and thereby thins the walls of the heart. Alcoholic cardiomyopathy has different types of effects on the body; this disease prevents the body from pumping blood to the tissues and organs, can cause arrhythmias, and even lead to congestive heart failure.
Who Gets It?
Alcoholic cardiomyopathy is most prevalent in men between the ages of 35 and 50. However, women can also develop the disease.1 As women typically have smaller body sizes than men, they may become afflicted with alcoholic cardiomyopathy after consuming lower volumes of alcohol than men.
Alcoholic cardiomyopathy is one form of heart disease. Cardiovascular diseases, including heart disease and strokes, are leading causes of death in the US.2 So what can be done about this problem? One of the best first steps is to know the symptoms of alcoholic cardiomyopathy.
The Signs of Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy
A person with alcoholic cardiomyopathy may not be symptomatic at first and may not show symptoms until the condition reaches a critical state. This fact makes annual examinations all the more critical. It will also be necessary to honestly advise the attending doctor of one’s history of alcohol abuse. This can be particularly difficult for those alcohol abusers who are in denial about their problem.
Alcoholic cardiomyopathy can be diagnosed through a host of exams working in conjunction, including a physical exam (listening to heart), tests for liver function, blood chemistry and cholesterol levels, chest x-rays, an echocardiogram, an electrocardiogram (EKG), and heart catheterization.
People with alcoholic cardiomyopathy who are symptomatic may experience a range of symptoms in different parts of the body, including:
- Leg swelling
- Shortness of breath
- Fatigue, weakness
- Enlarged liver
- Cough with pink, frothy mucus
- Fainting, dizziness
- Irregular, rapid heartbeat or pulse3
Alcoholic cardiomyopathy may be treatable—at least partially—if the condition is detected early enough and the patient abstains from all alcohol use. However, the likelihood of a complete recovery is low if alcoholic cardiomyopathy has already damaged the heart. It is impossible to predict whether a person will develop this disease. There is no fixed number of drinks, or a specific period of time that leads to the development of this disease. The best practice is for a person to have periodic physical exams with a doctor and to share the details of the individual’s drinking habits.
Alcohol Use Disorder
Alcohol use disorder is treatable. However, only a small percentage of persons who need treatment for alcohol use disorder actually receive it. The term “alcohol use disorder” helps to pinpoint the severity of an individual’s alcohol abuse. Under the DSM-V, a person may be diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder if they meet two out of 11 delineated criteria. The grade of severity of the alcohol use disorder then depends on the number of total criteria met.3 Arguably, those who are diagnosed with alcohol use disorder may be at a greater risk of developing alcoholic cardiomyopathy.
Treatment for Cardiomyopathy
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute extensively describes the treatments available for cardiomyopathy. The recommended treatment approach depends on a variety of elements.Some of these factors include the type of cardiomyopathy, the severity of the symptoms, complications, health condition overall, and age. Treatment may include medications, surgical intervention, a nonsurgical procedure, and recommendations to make lifestyle changes.4
A person with cardiomyopathy must receive ongoing care, as cardiomyopathy is a major cause of heart failure.5 The treatments described above are intended to keep the disease from worsening, but it is always a possibility that a patient will not successfully respond to treatment. Modifications may need to be made, and it is critical to have continuing checkups with one’s doctor. Ongoing care is largely the responsibility of the individual, and the best practice is to follow all medical advice provided as well as self-educate about how to live as successfully as possible with this disease.
“Recovery is a lot of work,” writes Karen K. at Heroes in Recovery. “But it’s all worth it. Now I have a beautiful life and a wonderful family. I’ve become a teacher, which I love.”
Michael’s House provides a comprehensive residential alcohol rehab program in Palm Springs, California. We work closely with our patients to uncover the roots of addiction and develop strategies to avoid relapse. In view of the devastating consequences, alcohol abuse can have on one’s health, we are committed to providing our patients with every opportunity to achieve and maintain lasting recovery.
1 “Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy and Your Health.” Healthline. 2 May 2017.
2 “Costs and Consequences.” Million Hearts. 7 December 2017.
3 “Alcohol Use Disorder: A Comparison Between DSM–IV and DSM–5.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.July 2017.
4 “How Is Cardiomyopathy Treated?” National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, 27 March 2013.
5 “Cardiomyopathy.” Cleveland Clinic. August 2016.