As methamphetamine arrests continue to climb and the amount of the illicit drugs seized by law enforcement steadily increases, hospitals are treating more health problems caused by the street drug.
Meth-related heart failure is one of the most serious illnesses diagnosed in San Diego County emergency rooms and doctor’s offices.
"The fatality rate with meth-associated congestive heart failure is extraordinarily high," said Dr. David Shaw, a cardiologist at Scripps Mercy Hospital in Hillcrest.
Shaw said methamphetamine damages the heart muscle and causes the heart to enlarge. It can no longer efficiently pump blood to the lungs and other organs, causing fluids to back up in your body. A patient’s legs can swell, exhausted by just standing up.
Shaw said the effect of congestive heart failure is similar to a malfunctioning mechanical pump like you’d buy at Home Depot.
"You have a pump in the basement,” Shaw explained. “If it doesn't work, the basement fills up with water. That's pretty much what happens to the body."
Doctor Shaw and colleagues reviewed 3,000 cases of congestive heart failure at two Scripps hospitals and published their findings in a medical journal.
They found that meth-related heart failures almost tripled from 2009 to 2014.
By comparison, Shaw’s study found there was almost no increase in heart failure caused by alcohol or cocaine use.
Fortunately, Shaw says a meth-damaged heart can be at least partially repaired when addicts stop using the illicit drug and take prescription medications the help rebuild the damaged muscle.
“They start with a heart that’s enlarged, and they end up with a heart that’s contracting much more vigorously,” Shaw told NBC 7 Investigates.
Scripps and other local hospitals work closely with addiction counselors and the county’s Methamphetamine Strike Force to help users wean themselves from the illicit drug.
“We've gotten a lot of patients that abstain permanently, or at least very long term, with support from families,” Shaw said. “Family support is critical. Family and friend support in abstaining."
Methamphetamine-related hospitalizations are also on the rise.
A study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association found 206,000 such hospitalizations in 2015, compared to 55,500 in 2008.
The western states, including California, have experienced more meth-related hospitalizations than other areas.
According to that study, the cost of meth-related hospital care was more than $2 billion in 2015.