Growing Proportion of Cardiac Arrests in US Considered Opioid Related

Ted Bosworth

September 14, 2021

Observational data indicate that the number of hospitalizations for cardiac arrests linked to opioid use roughly doubled from 2012 to 2018.

"This was an observational study, so we cannot conclude that all of the arrests were caused by opioids, but the findings do suggest the opioid epidemic is a contributor to increasing rates," Senada S. Malik, of the University of New England, Portland, Maine, reported at the virtual annual congress of the European Society of Cardiology.

The data were drawn from the Nationwide Inpatient Sample (NIS) from 2012 to 2018, the most recent period available. Cardiac arrests were considered opioid related if there was a secondary diagnosis of opioid disease. The rates of opioid-associated hospitalizations for these types of cardiac arrests climbed from about 800 per year in 2012 to 1,500 per year in 2018, a trend that was statistically significant (P < .05).

The profile of patients with an opioid-associated cardiac arrest was different from those without secondary diagnosis of opioid disease. This included a younger age and lower rates of comorbidities: heart failure (21.2% vs. 40.6%; P < .05), renal failure (14.3% vs. 30.2%; P < .05), diabetes (19.5% vs. 35.4%; P < .05), and hypertension (43.4% vs. 64.9%; P < .05).

Mortality From Opioid-Associated Cardiac Arrest Is Lower

These features might explain the lower rate of in-hospital mortality for opioid-associated cardiac arrests (56.7% vs. 61.2%), according to Ms. Malik, who performed this research in collaboration with Wilbert S. Aronow, MD, director of cardiology research, Westchester Medical Center, Valhalla, N.Y.

When compared to those without a history of opioid use on admission, those with opioid-associated cardiac arrest were more likely to be depressed (18.8% vs. 9.0%), to smoke (37.0% vs. 21.8%) and to abuse alcohol (16.9% vs. 7.1%), according to the NIS data.

While these findings are based on cardiac arrests brought to a hospital, some opioid-induced cardiac arrests never result in hospital admission, according to data included in a recently issued scientific statement from the American Heart Association.

Rate of Opioid-Associated Cardiac Arrests Underestimated

In that statement, which was focused on opioid-associated out-of-hospital cardiac arrests (OA-OHCA), numerous studies were cited to support the conclusion that these events are common and underestimated. One problem is that opioid-induced cardiac arrests are not always accurately differentiated from cardiac arrests induced by use of other substances, such as barbiturates, cocaine, or alcohol.

For this and other reasons, the data are inconsistent. One study based on emergency medical service (EMS) response data concluded that 9% of all out-of-hospital cardiac arrests are opioid associated.

In another study using potentially more accurate autopsy data, 60% of the non–cardiac-associated cardiac arrests were found to occur in individuals with potentially lethal serum concentrations of opioids. As 40% of out-of-hospital cardiac arrests were considered non–cardiac related, this suggested that 15% of all out-of-hospital cardiac arrests are opioid related.

In the NIS data, the incident curves of opioid-related cardiac arrests appeared to be flattening in 2018, the last year of data collection, but there was no indication they were declining.

Patterns of Opioid-Induced Cardiac Arrests Evolving

The patterns of opioid-induced cardiac arrest have changed and are likely to continue to change in response to the evolving opioid epidemic, according to the AHA scientific statement. The authors described three waves of opioid abuse. The first, which was related to the promotion of prescription opioids to treat chronic pain that ultimately led to high rates of opioid addiction, peaked in 2012 when rates of these prescriptions began to fall.

At that time a second wave, attributed to patients switching to less expensive nonprescription heroin, was already underway. A third wave, attributed to growth in the use of synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, began in 2013 and is ongoing, according to data cited in the AHA statement.

Recognizing the role of opioids in rising rates of cardiac arrest is important for promoting strategies of effective treatment and prevention, according to Cameron Dezfulian, MD, medical director of the adult congenital heart disease program at Texas Children's Hospital, Houston. Dezfulian was vice chair and leader of the writing committee for the AHA scientific statement on OA-OHCA. He said there are plenty of data to support the need for greater attention to the role of opioids in cardiac arrest.

"The recent data affirms the trends many of us have observed without our emergency rooms and ICUs: a steady increase in the proportion of OA-OHCA, primarily in young and otherwise healthy individuals," he said.

He calls not only for more awareness at the front lines of health are but also for a more comprehensive approach.

"Public health policies and community- and hospital-based interventions are needed to reduce the mortality due to OA-OHCA, which is distinct from the traditional cardiac etiology," Dezfulian said.

In opioid-induced cardiac arrest, as in other types of cardiac arrest, prompt initiation of cardiopulmonary resuscitation is essential, but early administration of the opioid antagonist naloxone can also be lifesaving, according to treatment strategies outlined in the AHA scientific statement. The fact that OA-OHCA typically occur in patients with structurally and electrophysiologically normal hearts is emphasized in the AHA statement. So is the enormous public health toll of OA-OHCA.

Death due to opioid overdose, which includes cardiac arrests, is now the leading cause of mortality in the U.S. among individuals between the ages of 25 and 64 years, according to the statement.

Malik reports no potential conflicts of interest. Dezfulian reports a financial relationship with Mallinckrodt.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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