In recent years, cannabis has grown in popularity, with claims about its medicinal benefits well-publicized. Because it is often used as a medicine, many people consider cannabis as relatively safe, especially compared with drugs of abuse such as opioids.
However, like any medicine, cannabis can cause some unpleasant side effects. The infamous herb is probably best known for its effects on the brain, which range from mildly impaired coordination and memory to full-blown paranoia in some people. Cannabis can also cause some physical side effects. The most common of these include dry mouth, dry eyes, and dizziness. One of the more unusual but potentially serious side effects is chest pain.
Of course, millions of people across the globe disregard the respiratory health concerns associated with marijuana consumption because of its recreational (and/or medical) benefits. But on an actual physiological level, why do some people find that their chest hurts after smoking cannabis? Let’s take a closer look…
The Anatomy of the Chest – and Why Smoking Weed Might Hurt It
To understand why cannabis may cause chest pain, first, we need to be familiar with the anatomy of the chest. And since some people may not recall much from their high school anatomy days, let’s take a little bit of a refresher.
The chest contains some of the most crucial organs, the heart, and lungs. These are housed by the rib cage, which protects them from external damage and trauma. Small muscles intersperse the ribs themselves, called the intercostal muscles. These allow the ribcage to move in and out as a person breathes.
The lungs are connected to the nose and mouth by a tube called the trachea. At its base, this divides into two smaller tubes called the bronchi. In the lungs, the bronchi divide further into smaller tubes called bronchioles, and at the end of each one is a tiny air sac called an alveolus. Although these air sacs are very small, there are so many of them that they have a vast surface area, around 70 square meters!
This massive surface area allows oxygen to effectively diffuse into the bloodstream, where it is transported to the heart.
Blood enters the heart through a vein called the pulmonary vein. It travels through the chambers of the heart and exits through the aorta, which transports oxygenated blood through the arteries and around the body. Once the oxygen has reached its target tissues and organs, blood is returned to the heart via the veins. It is then returned to the lungs for another dose of oxygen, and the whole process starts again.
Potential Causes of Non-Marijuana Related Chest Pain
It can be hard to know whether chest pain is a sign of something serious that requires medical attention. As a general rule, it is advisable to contact a physician urgently or call 911 if chest pain:
- Is severe
- Comes on suddenly
- Lasts longer than 15 minutes
- Happens during exercise
- Spreads to the left arm, jaw, or upper back
- Is accompanied by palpitations, shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, or sweating
If someone has chest pain that does not fit the above criteria, it is still worth getting it checked out, especially if they have a family history of heart disease.
If a person is suffering from chest pain, their first instinct may be to panic. However, there are many different reasons for chest pain, and most are no major cause for concern. Although chest pain could be due to a serious problem such as a heart attack, it could just as easily be something as trivial as indigestion.
Lung infections, pulled muscles, and panic attacks can all cause chest pain too, and the symptoms can be very similar.
There are several different reasons why cannabis can cause chest pain. It may seem obvious that smoking anything can cause problems in the lungs, but did you know that cannabis can cause heart problems too? Let’s take a look at some of the things that might be going on.
Smoking Weed May Affect the Heart
In low doses, cannabis activates the sympathetic nervous system, causing heart rate and blood pressure to increase. This reduces the amount of oxygen able to reach the heart muscle, which could cause adverse effects in those with heart disease.
One report published in the Journal of Emergencies, Trauma, and Shock describes the cases of two men who were admitted to hospital following chest pain that came on shortly after smoking marijuana. Neither man was found to have any other risk factors for cardiovascular disease, but both had dangerous blood clots in one of the arteries that supply the heart muscles. One of the men went on to have a heart attack, but thankfully he was saved by his medical team.
Another report from the French Addictovigilance Network found that between 2006 and 2010, 1.8% of people who experienced adverse effects from marijuana had some form of cardiovascular disease. During this timeframe, there were 22 cardiac complications, 9 of which led to death. Almost half of these people had a family history of heart disease.
So it seems that cannabis use can contribute to heart problems, especially if they are written into a person’s genes. But how about lung problems?
Chest Pain From Smoking Weed – Is It a Real Thing?
These days it is a well-known fact that smoking is bad for your lungs, but surprisingly it seems that cannabis could be even worse than tobacco on this front! Most people do not realize that cannabis contains many of the same harmful chemicals that are in tobacco. And because in many places it is still illegal, cannabis quality is not subject to rigorous regulatory testing.
This unfortunate situation means that pesticides, bacteria, or mold could very well contaminate cannabis.
One particularly common contaminant is the aspergillus mold, which can cause severe lung infections when inhaled. These infections can cause chest pain and may lead to pneumonia or even death if left untreated.
Another reason why smoking cannabis may be worse than cigarettes is the way in which it is smoked. It is thought that when smoking cannabis, people inhale 66% longer and 33% deeper than tobacco smokers, and also hold their smoke in up to four times longer!
Because of this, it is estimated that a single joint could cause as much damage as 2.5–5 cigarettes! Smoking cannabis causes irritation and inflammation in the airways and increases the risk of bronchitis. Heavy users could even end up with lung conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). However, the risk of developing emphysema is lower with weed than tobacco, and the link between cannabis and lung cancer remains uncertain.
Smoking weed has also been associated with an increased risk of pneumothorax (collapsed lung). This risk is higher in people under the age of 45. Cannabis can also cause chest pain due to coughing fits, which could strain the intercostal muscles between the ribs.
Chest Pain from Smoking Marijuana… Not Your Only Cannabis-Related Health Concern
One of the most common downsides of cannabis use is anxiety. For most people, this is quite mild, but for others, it could lead to a full-on panic attack. The classic symptoms of a panic attack can be very similar to those of a heart attack – difficulty breathing, clammy skin, a sense of impending doom, and of course, chest pain.
Anyone who regularly suffers from panic attacks will probably be able to recognize the signs immediately. However, when this happens for the first time, it can be incredibly frightening, especially if it happens while high.
Fortunately, panic attacks usually don’t last too long. They will generally pass within a few minutes, perhaps aided by some deep breathing and calming thoughts. Anyone in any doubt as to what is causing their symptoms should contact a doctor immediately.
Final Thoughts on Why Your Chest Might Hurt After Smoking Weed
Smoking cannabis is generally considered safe, but marijuana can exacerbate diseases of the heart and lungs. It also has the potential to cause panic attacks. All of these conditions can cause chest pain, which can be scary – especially if it is happening for the first time.
It is always worth getting any chest pain investigated, although in most cases, a routine appointment will suffice.
Be sure to be honest with the doctor about cannabis use and any family history of heart disease so that they can make an accurate diagnosis.
Anyone with an ongoing problem with chest pain after smoking might also want to consider switching to another method of consuming marijuana, such as topical creams or edibles. Doing this might not necessarily prevent anxiety or protect the heart, but at least it will give the lungs a much-needed break!
Also, remember, if you experience any problems, always consult with your primary physician.