MONDAY, Nov. 5, 2018 (HealthDay News) -- Opioid users may be putting themselves at increased risk for atrial fibrillation ("A-fib"), an abnormal heart rhythm that can lead to a stroke, a new study suggests.
The preliminary finding stems from an analysis of medical records of more than 850,000 military veterans. It found that opioid use increases the likelihood of A-fib by 34 percent.
"We all know that the opioid epidemic is taking an unspeakable human toll through addiction, abuse and overdose, but our findings suggest that the toll may be even greater when we consider the cardiovascular effects opioids may have," said lead investigator Dr. Jonathan Stock. He's a resident at Yale New Haven Hospital in Connecticut.
The researchers said their findings are based on tracking opioid use, not abuse, and show opioids are dangerous even when the drugs are not abused or users are not addicts.
"Our results point to the importance of prescribing opioids only as a last resort," Stock said. "Opioid use, by itself, must be taken seriously and efforts should be made, not only to reduce opioid abuse and overdoses, but to ensure patients are being prescribed opioids only when absolutely necessary."
For the study, Stock's team analyzed medical records of more than 857,000 veterans between the ages of 25 and 51.
About 3,000 of them had been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. Of those, nearly 29 percent had used opioids, compared with 15 percent of vets without the heart irregularity.
The risk for a-fib remained even after researchers accounted for other heart disease risk factors.
Of concern was the finding that atrial fibrillation was seen in young healthy people. The average age of those in the study was 38. The abnormality is typically more common among those 65 and older.
The researchers offered a possible reason for the link between opioid use and a-fib. They theorize that opioids may lead to or worsen breathing problems during sleep as well as obstructive sleep apnea, a known risk factor for cardiac rhythm disturbances.
The findings are to be presented Nov. 10 at a meeting of the American Heart Association in Chicago.
Research presented at meetings is typically considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
To learn more about atrial fibrillation, visit the American Heart Association.