In recent years marijuana has grown in popularity, with claims about its medicinal benefits being well-publicized. Because it is often used as a medicine, many people consider using weed as relatively safe, especially compared with dangerous drugs such as opioids.
However, like any medicine, weed 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 a 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 potential respiratory health concerns of marijuana consumption for its recreational (and/or medical) benefits. But on an actual physiological level, why do some people find that their chest hurts after smoking weed? Let’s take a closer look…
The Anatomy of the Chest – and Why Smoking Weed Might Hurt It
To understand why marijuana may cause chest pain, first we need to be familiar with the anatomy of the chest. And to be sure, you probably don’t recall much from your high school anatomy days, so let’s take a little bit of a refresher.
Your chest contains some of your most crucial organs, your heart and lungs. These are housed by your rib cage, which protects them from external damage and trauma. Small muscles intersperse the ribs themselves, called the intercostal muscles. These allow your ribcage to move in and out as you breathe.
Your lungs are connected to your 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 70m²! 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 to 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
If you are suffering from chest pain, your 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.
Because of this, it can be hard to know whether your chest pain is a sign of something serious and requires medical attention. As a general rule, you should contact your physician urgently or call 911 if your chest pain:
- Is severe
- Comes on suddenly
- Lasts longer than 15 minutes
- Happens during exercise
- Spreads to your left arm, jaw, or upper back
- Is accompanied by palpitations, shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, or sweating
If you have chest pain which does not fit the above criteria, it is still worth getting it checked out, especially if you have a family history of heart disease.
Down to Brass Tax… Why Does My Chest Hurt After I Smoke Weed?
There are several different reasons why weed can cause chest pain. It may seem obvious that smoking anything can cause problems in your lungs, but did you know that cannabis can cause heart problems too? Well, it can. Let’s take a look at some of the things that might be going on “under the hood” when you roast that bone…
Smoking Weed May Affect the Heart
In low doses, marijuana activates your sympathetic nervous system, causing your heart rate and blood pressure to increase. This reduces the amount of oxygen which is able to reach your heart muscle, and in susceptible people could lead to a heart attack.
In higher doses, it has the opposite effect. Your parasympathetic nervous system is activated causing your heart rate and blood pressure to decrease. This increases carbon dioxide production to rise, and oxygenation to fall, again raising the risk of a heart attack.
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 your 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 weed 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, marijuana is not well regulated or subject to rigorous testing.
This unfortunate situation means that pesticides, bacteria, or mold could very well contaminate your weed. 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 weed is 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 your airways and increases your 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 Pot-Related Health Concern
One of the most common downsides of marijuana 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.
If you regularly suffer from panic attacks, you will probably be able to recognize the signs immediately. However, when this happens for the first time, it can be incredibly frightening, especially if you happen to be high.
The plus side of panic attacks (if there are any) is that they usually don’t last too long. They will generally pass within a few minutes, perhaps aided by some deep breathing and calming thoughts. If you find yourself in any doubt as to what is causing your symptoms, contact your doctor immediately.
Final Thoughts on Why Your Chest Might Hurt After Smoking Weed
Smoking pot is generally considered safe, but marijuana can hurt your lungs — and your heart — as well as having 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.
The chances are that if you are suffering from chest pain after smoking weed, you have probably just strained a muscle coughing or given yourself indigestion by hitting the munchies too hard. However, there is a small possibility that you may be suffering from a more serious problem such as a lung infection, bronchitis, or worst case scenario, a heart attack.
It is always worth getting any chest pain investigated, although in most cases a routine appointment will suffice. Be sure to be honest with your doctor about your marijuana use and any family history of heart disease so that they can make an accurate diagnosis.
If you have an ongoing problem with chest pain after smoking, you might also want to consider switching to another method of taking marijuana such as topical creams or edibles. Doing this might not necessarily prevent anxiety or protect your heart, but at least it will give your lungs a much-needed break!
Also, remember, if you experience any problems, always consult with your primary physician.