New AHA Presidential Advisory addresses opioid use and its effects on heart and brain health

The misuse of opioids in the United States continues to lead to high rates of dependency as well as a staggering number of deaths due to overdose.

The American Heart Association is addressing the opioid epidemic and advancing the science on opioid use and its effects on heart and brain health through evidence-based research, detailed in a new American Heart Association Presidential Advisory and published today in the Association's flagship journal Circulation.

More than 67,000 people died due to drug overdoses in the U.S. in 2018, and two-thirds of those deaths involved opioids. In the 12-month period from December 2019 to December 2020, there was a 30% increase in drug overdose deaths compared to the previous 12-month period, according to a recent, provisional data analysis from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The advisory notes several specific strategies for addressing the issue: improve education and training for the public and health care professionals on how to safely manage pain and opioid overdose; and support treatment for opioid use disorder, including creating and developing partnerships with federal, state, local and employer-based programs. Through strong, collaborative partnerships, healthier communities with more equitable access to care can help to reverse the rate of opioid overdoses and deaths in the U.S.

"Opioid abuse accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic due to disruption of the illicit drug supply environment, more limited access to medications, and social isolation and depression related to pandemic safety measures," said chair of the writing group Sheryl L. Chow, Pharm.D., FAHA, an associate professor of pharmacy practice at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, California, and associate clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, Irvine. "Opioid overdose is now a leading cause of death for Americans 25 to 54 years of age, and opioid use disorder affects more than 2 million Americans."

The AHA partnered with a team of leading health authorities-; physicians, scientists, and a pharmacist with expertise and knowledge in the field of medicine, pharmacotherapy, research, and federal regulations-; to develop the presidential advisory.

It highlights recommendations, algorithms, and guidance for health care professionals and researchers who specialize in heart and brain health. The volunteer writing group used data and information from more than 90 evidence-based epidemiology studies, reviews, consensus statements, and guidelines already published.

"Health care professionals who manage pain in the setting of cardiovascular disease and stroke should be encouraged to receive training in management of pain using non-opioid strategies and on screening for opioid use disorder," said Chow.

Lay responders should also be encouraged to receive formal CPR training with specific instructions on naloxone administration because opioid overdose often occurs in public, and CPR is more likely to be given by bystanders."

Sheryl L. Chow, Pharm.D., FAHA, Associate Professor of Pharmacy Practice, Western University of Health Sciences

Key points detailed in the advisory include:

  • CPR guidelines and algorithms are reviewed for both health care professionals and lay rescuers for when a person has a suspected opioid overdose. CPR training for laypeople should emphasize calling 911 and initiating CPR before administering naloxone because it may be hard for a lay rescuer to identify the cause of the cardiac arrest, and naloxone will only be effective if opioid overdose is the cause of the cardiac arrest. (Naloxone is an emergency medication that can rapidly and effectively be lifesaving in the case of an opioid or other illicit drug overdose.)
  • For people with cardiovascular disease and muscle or joint pain, acetaminophen, aspirin and non-acetylated salicylates should be considered first for pain management as alternatives to opioids.
  • Morphine is used to reduce pain for some coronary patients, yet the medication may reduce the therapeutic effectiveness of P2Y12-receptor antagonists (antiplatelet/clot-preventing medications).
  • Parenteral antiplatelet agents (medications given intravenously) may be considered for acute coronary syndrome treatment when administered with morphine in the hospital setting.
  • An expansion of free, syringe exchange programs should be considered to reduce the risk of infective endocarditis, a serious infection of the heart lining, which can occur when needles are shared for intravenous drug use.
  • A coordinated approach to opioid management should occur among federal, state and local health and law enforcement agencies, as well as in the workplace setting through organizational initiatives.

The American Heart Association is committed to advancing the science on opioid use and its effects on patients with cardiovascular disease through evidence-based research; improving education and training for the public and health care professionals on how to safely manage pain or opioid overdose and support treatment for opioid use disorder; and creating and developing partnerships with federal, state, local and employer-based programs.

"This advisory includes both immediate and long-term strategies to help mitigate the devastating intersection of opioid abuse and cardiovascular disease," said Ivor J. Benjamin, M.D., FAHA, former president of the American Heart Association (2017-2018), and director of the cardiovascular center, co-director of the NIH T32 Postdoctoral Fellowship in Cardiovascular Sciences and professor of medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee."

"Together with our partners throughout public health, policy and government infrastructures, we can help support health care professionals and people in our communities more effectively avoid the preventable deaths caused by opioid use disorder and opioid overdose," concluded Benjamin.

Journal reference:

Chow, S. L., et al. (2021) Opioid Use and Its Relationship to Cardiovascular Disease and Brain Health: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association. Circulation.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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