As a physician, I know that heart attacks increase at this time of year.
But I still was surprised when I visited an uncle in London one Christmas and saw personally and firsthand what a little (or not so little) overindulging can do to the heart.
Holiday Heart Syndrome is a form of heart rhythm abnormality brought on by alcohol — originally called this from a report on 32 patients who had “dysrhythmic episodes” after having been on a bender.
The human heart has specialized nerve cells that initiate and conduct the electrical impulse and cause the heart muscle to contract and the heart to beat — or pump, to be more precise.
A hefty slug of alcohol, which is, of course, the hallmark of the holiday season for many, has the ability to tickle up those nerve fibers and result in an abnormal rhythm. The most common result? Atrial fibrillation, or AF.
These “arrhythmias” show up as palpitations, which are felt as a prominent or irregular heartbeat. If severe enough to impair the efficient pumping of blood, they can cause weakness, shortness of breath, even angina, that ominous cramp-like pain across the chest that is likely to occur during a heart attack.
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When my wife and I were visiting my uncle on this particular occasion, he awoke the next morning after a rather riotous dinner party and complained he didn’t feel well. His pulse was irregular. I was concerned he had gone into atrial fibrillation — as he had in the past — so we took a taxi to University College Hospital Accident and Emergency department.
Even though he suddenly announced in the cab that he felt “a lot better” — when I felt his pulse it seemed to be back in regular, normal sinus rhythm — we continued on.
Uncle Solly was whisked in, examined, and had tests and an ECG. He was deemed cured in a matter of about 45 minutes.
This story has a happy ending, fortunately, but medical literature warns of sudden death from these arrhythmias.
Hospitals report seeing an increase in patients at this time each year. Atrial fibrillation can also lead to the formation of blood clots that can cause strokes, which is why fibrillating patients are put on blood thinners. If you or anyone close to you experiences symptoms, seek treatment and avoid any aggravating factors, such as stimulants like caffeine, and obviously alcohol. Avoid salt as well.
Heavy long-term consumption of alcohol is considered a significant toxin — to your liver, brain and nerves. It has a long-term effect on the heart, causing damage to the heart muscle and a so-called cardiomyopathy.
Recent innovations like the AliveCor app for your smartphone, which has just been approved by the FDA for detecting AF, can help. The best tip of all, though, is to get a full-blown EKG. For this, you usually need to get to your doctor’s office, an urgent care center or the emergency room. If in any doubt, and especially if you experience shortness of breath or chest pain, call an ambulance immediately.
You will likely be given medicines to slow down your heart and convert it to so-called normal sinus rhythm. Also, if symptoms are persistent, you will be put on blood thinners such as Coumadin. And you may be treated with “cardioversion,” a process in which the heart is shocked back into normal rhythm with an electric impulse.
Patrick Neustatter, M.D., practiced primary care for more than 40 years and recently published the book “Managing Your Doctor: The Smart Patient’s Guide to Getting Effective, Affordable Healthcare.”