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Chest Pain During Alcohol Withdrawal | Causes & Other Complications

Published on June 23, 2021
Chest Pain During Alcohol Withdrawal | Causes & Other Complications

Alcohol detoxification is a strenuous process that can potentially stretch a person’s body and mind to the extreme until symptoms eventually recede. 

Unfortunately, chest pains are a common and often alarming side-effect of this process, though the specific cause and nature of these complaints may vary.

Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome refers to a set of symptoms that occur when an individual who has developed alcohol use disorder reduces their alcohol consumption or stops drinking alcohol altogether.

These symptoms can vary from mild to severe or even life-threatening, and occur due to changes in brain chemistry and the central nervous system following chronic alcohol use. 

In particular, the brain may change how it uses the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptor, which is released during heavy drinking. 

When someone then goes without alcohol, the body and brain need time to adjust to this new normal, leading to a sudden deficit in GABA which may trigger various withdrawal symptoms associated with chest pain and physical discomfort.

Chest Pain & Alcohol Withdrawal

Chest pain during alcohol withdrawal can occur due to a number of different but often related conditions or physical reactions, including:

Tachycardia

Tachycardia is a fast heart rate, with heartbeats running significantly faster than normal. This can cause feelings of chest tightness, dizziness, lightheadedness, heart palpitations (heart flutters or bumps), and even difficulty breathing. 

Tachycardia is likely caused by atrial fibrillation (AFIB), a condition where the upper chambers of the heart receive chaotic, irregular electrical impulses. 

Alcohol is a potent central nervous system depressant. When alcohol is no longer present after the body has become dependent on it, the central nervous system will overreact, increasing physical activity and heart rate well above normal.

Arrhythmias

An arrhythmia is an irregular heart rhythm that can cause a person to feel like their heart is beating too fast or too slow. These irregular heartbeats become more and more likely the more alcohol a person drinks in one sitting, and are a common complaint of chronic drinkers as well. 

During withdrawal, arrhythmias may occur due to low electrolyte levels and/or dehydration. 

Coronary Artery Spasms

If one of the blood vessels leading to the heart suddenly constricts or narrows, it’s known as an artery spasm. These are another common side effect of long-term alcohol abuse, and can occur during withdrawal leading to severe, constricting pain in the chest. 

Artery spasms can lead to heart attacks, and healthcare providers should react quickly to treat them and deal with the pain if they should occur. 

Fortunately, the risk of artery spasms decreases once an individual finishes alcohol withdrawal.

Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy

Alcohol is toxic and in heavy drinkers it can wear down and injure heart muscle over time, leading to cardiomyopathy, which is another term for heart disease. 

Alcoholic cardiomyopathy is a progressive health condition, meaning that the risks and symptoms of the condition get worse over time as long as long as the drinking continues. If not treated, alcoholic cardiomyopathy can cause heart failure and death.

If one does stop drinking entirely and permanently, the effects of the condition are largely reversible.

Cardiomyopathy can cause swelling, shortness of breath, fatigue, coughing, heart palpitations, and tachycardia, especially during the rigors of alcohol withdrawal.

Other Common Complications & Symptoms Of Alcohol Withdrawal

Aside from chest pain and heart flutters, alcohol withdrawal is known to cause a range of both physical and mental symptoms. 

Physical

Physical symptoms of withdrawal may include:

  • clammy skin
  • blood pressure changes
  • difficulty sleeping
  • headache
  • low appetite
  • nausea and vomiting
  • sweating
  • tremors

Psychological

Psychological symptoms of withdrawal may include:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • irritability
  • mental cloudiness
  • mood changes
  • nightmares
  • shakiness

Delirium Tremens

In severe cases, alcohol withdrawal can lead to a condition known as delirium tremens, in which a person becomes extremely confused and experiences severe withdrawal symptoms for two to three days. Hallucinations or seizures may occur. 

Delirium tremens can, in some cases, be fatal if not managed by medical professionals.

Kindling 

Unfortunately, repeated detoxifications from alcohol can sensitize some individuals to alcohol withdrawal, meaning that the more times a person attempts detox, the more severe and potentially dangerous their alcohol withdrawal symptoms will become with each attempt. 

This effect is known as kindling. This highlights the importance of follow-through, aftercare, and coping mechanisms after detox is finished and after a participant in a substance abuse treatment program heads home.

The Importance Of Medical Detox

Medical detox is a service of addiction recovery treatment programs. The person with alcohol dependence goes through the process of withdrawal with the support and close supervision of professional staff and healthcare providers. 

This gives participants a structured, encouraging environment for the earliest and often most difficult days of their recovery, ensuring that medical help is immediately available if an emergency situation does occur. 

To learn more about our treatment options and availability, please contact us today.

Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.

Alcohol Health & Research World - Complications of Alcohol Withdrawal
Herz - Alcoholic cardiomyopathy
National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus - Alcohol withdrawal

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