The medicinal benefits of marijuana are well-documented. So many people use medical cannabis to manage a health condition. Others might use it simply to help them relax at the end of a long day. But sometimes smoking can lead to uncomfortable side effects - like chest pain.
If you get chest pain after smoking weed, there are a few potential causes. Smoking cannabis can come with some unpleasant physical and psychological side effects. Regular use of this popular herb can affect your heart and lungs, and these effects may explain why you get pain in your chest when smoking marijuana that might linger for some time.
How Cannabis Affects the Heart
According to the CDC, marijuana use may increase the risk of stroke, heart disease, and other vascular diseases. Though many assume smoking cannabis is much safer than smoking cigarettes, marijuana smoke does deliver some of the same substances found in tobacco smoke to your cardiovascular system and lungs.
Potential for Heart Attack or Cardiac Incidents
A report published in the Journal of Emergencies, Trauma, and Shock describes an incident where two men were admitted to the hospital for chest pain that occurred shortly after smoking cannabis. Neither man had any risk factors for heart disease, but both had blood clots in one of the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscles. One of the men had a heart attack while in the hospital. The researchers went on to explain that marijuana can have a serious effect on the heart and blood vessels.
Also, like cigarettes, smoking marijuana increases carbon dioxide in the blood, leading to lower oxygen supply to the heart muscle. This is associated with several heart problems, such as chest pain, heart attack, narrow coronary arteries, and heart rhythm disturbances.
Increased Risk of Heart Disease and Stroke
Researchers from Stanford University found that people who regularly use cannabis have an increased risk of heart disease and heart attack. A study published in the American Journal of Medicine found that regular users have a significantly higher risk of heart disease than non-users. Frequent marijuana users have been shown to have:
- An 88% higher risk of developing coronary artery disease
- An 81% increased risk of stroke
Among those who had been diagnosed with premature cardiovascular disease - men younger than 45 and women younger than 55 - frequent marijuana users had:
- 2.3 higher chances of coronary artery disease or myocardial infraction
- 1.9 times higher risk of stroke
Another study found that marijuana use leads to an increased risk of cardiovascular complications and found that cannabis use is a possible risk factor for cardiovascular disease in young adults.
For people with heart disease or for those who are at risk for heart disease (such as those with a family history), cannabis should be used with an abundance of caution. Smoking cannabis increases the heart's need for oxygen while decreasing the oxygen supply. This can trigger chest pain (angina) and lead to serious cardiac events, such as heart attack and stroke. If you have chest pain after smoking cannabis, you may be feeling the effects of the drug on your heart.
How Cannabis Affects the Lungs and Respiratory System
Regular or heavy cannabis smoking affects the airways and lungs, which can lead to chest pain during and in between smoking sessions. Evidence suggests that regular cannabis smoking can lead to problems with the airways and lungs, possibly even more so than smoking cigarettes.
The way people smoke cannabis may explain why. When smoking marijuana, people inhale 33% deeper and 66% longer than people who smoke tobacco (cigarettes). They also tend to hold the smoke in their lungs longer. Because of this, smoking just one joint may cause as much damage as 2.5 to 5 cigarettes.
Smoking marijuana long-term can irritate the airways and cause inflammation in the airways and lungs. According to the American Lung Association, regular cannabis use can increase the risk of problems with the respiratory system, such as:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Collapsed lung
- Damaged mucus membranes
- Excess mucus production
- Lung infections
How Cannabis Affects the Chest
Smoking marijuana can have an impact on the muscles and joints within your rib cage and chest.
Pain from Lung Stress or Coughing
Many cannabis smokers have the habit of taking long, deep drags and hold it in their lungs for several seconds. Repetitive deep breathing and expansion of the lungs when you smoke marijuana can lead to irritation, inflammation and pain affecting the chest muscles, rib joints, and rib muscles.
Smoking weed may also cause chest pain due to coughing fits, which can strain the intercostal muscles between the ribs which can take as many as eight weeks to heal.
Pain from Costochondritis
Costochondritis, sometimes called chest wall pain syndrome, is an inflammatory condition of the cartilage between the ribs and breastbone. This condition can cause pain that may feel like a heart attack or other heart conditions.
Smoking cannabis can irritate and inflame muscles of the rib cage and the cartilage joints between the ribs and sternum (breastbone). If you have costochondritis, you may feel chest pain as you inhale.
How Cannabis Affects Anxiety and Panic Attacks
Cannabis is often used to alleviate anxiety. However, research shows that marijuana use can cause feelings of anxiety and panic. Chest tightness and pain are often symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks. But the relationship between smoking marijuana and anxiety or panic attacks is complicated because marijuana use is more common among people who already have underlying anxiety and panic disorders.
The psychoactive component of cannabis is called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which can sometimes cause feelings of anxiety and paranoia. High levels of THC, either from heavy use of marijuana or using a strain high in THC, can produce a high that feels more like a stimulant than the relaxing sedative many people expect from cannabis.
If you experience anxiety or have a panic attack after smoking cannabis, any chest pain you feel may be caused by the anxiety. Hyperventilating due to anxiety and/or a panic attack can worsen your chest pain and create a vicious cycle of more panic, anxiety, and chest pain. You may also notice numbness and tingling in other parts of your body, such as your face, hands, and fingers.
Other Potential Causes of Cannabis-Related Chest Pain
As with other plants, marijuana can be contaminated with pesticides, bacteria, mold and fungus. Case reports show that fungal diseases occur in cannabis smokers 3.5 times more often than in those who do not use cannabis. Chest pain may occur as the result of an infection or disease.
Researchers at the University of California, Davis examined 20 randomly selected samples of cannabis and found that all samples had detectable levels of contaminants, including many harmful bacteria and fungi. The researchers warned that these pathogens, particularly fungi, can cause serious or even fatal infections. The risk is highest for those with compromised immune systems, such as cancer patients, people with HIV/AIDS, and those who take immune-suppressing therapies.
What to Do if Your Chest Hurts After Smoking Cannabis
When your chest hurts after smoking weed, it can be difficult to tell if the pain is caused by heart problems, your respiratory system, rib pain, anxiety, or other causes of chest pain. Seek emergency medical attention if you have chest pain that:
- Is accompanied by heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, or sweating
- Is severe or persistent
- Radiates down your left arm, into your left jaw, or between your shoulder blades
Remember, it is always better to err on the side of caution and seek medical attention to address any potential health problems related to smoking marijuana.
Over the long term, it is important to be aware of the potential unpleasant side effects and health risks that accompany cannabis use. Even young people who are otherwise in good health can experience a heart attack or severe lung disease as a result of smoking marijuana. The risk is even greater if you have heart disease, lung disease, or other factors that increase your risk for severe complications.
If you're a cannabis user and have recurrent chest pain, you may want to consider cutting back or stopping your cannabis smoking habit. Remember to contact your healthcare provider if you experience any adverse side effects from cannabis use.