Mind and Body

Charlie Sheen: How Much Abuse Can He Take?

Charlie Sheen

Charlie Sheen  (Reuters)

Charlie Sheen does it all (allegedly): parties, drugs, porn stars. He lives the kind of life you’d only expect to see in movies — ironic, considering the bad-boy antics he’s known for take place when the cameras stop rolling.

His latest escapade, which according to TMZ, involved a briefcase full of cocaine, a 36-hour bender and two porn stars, ended when paramedics rushed him to the hospital with severe abdominal pains. Reportedly, the pain was a result of a hiatal hernia, which occurs when part of the stomach pushes upward through the diaphragm, sometimes forcing acid and food back into the esophagus.

But this isn’t the first time Sheen’s partying has come to a messy halt.

How long can he keep going like this? How long can his body handle the wear and tear of alcohol, drugs and casual sex?

Put simply — it’s complicated.

In October of 2010, Sheen was removed from his hotel room at the Plaza in New York City after causing more than $7,000 in damages and admitting to police that he had been drinking alcohol and using cocaine. One of the women he was partying with had been locked in the bathroom. Sheen was kept in a hospital for observation the next day and later released.

In February 2010, Sheen was arrested on charges of domestic violence — second degree assault and menacing — against then-wife Brooke Mueller. After posting his $8,500 bail, he was released from jail and later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault. He was sentenced to 30 days of rehab, 30 days of probation and 36 hours of anger management.

But these problems are nothing new. Sheen has been skirting on the edge of trouble for over fifteen years. In 1998, he accidentally overdosed after injecting himself with cocaine. And in 1995, famed Hollywood madam, Heidi Fleiss, named him as one of her clients.

It’s obvious that Sheen has a lot of risk factors in his life: Risk of overdosing (again), risk of harm due to his actions under the influence, and even the risk of serious STDs. But that doesn’t even begin to compare to the potential long-term physical and emotional consequences of his actions.

“Every part of the body suffers over time when drugs and alcohol are used to excess,” said Dr. Keith Ablow, psychiatrist and Fox News Medical A-Team member, who has not treated Sheen.

“From a psychiatric standpoint, alcohol abuse impacts mood, creates anxiety disorders,obliterates memory, and we know that it wreaks havoc with relationships and ability to have integrity. People who use cocaine are at risk for sudden death, cardiac disorders and strokes.”

Dr. Sybil Marsh, a family medicine physician with expertise in addiction medicine at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland said the effects of cocaine can be especially damaging to the heart.

“Cocaine’s affect is to cause blood vessels to constrict so important organs like the kidneys and the heart do not get enough blood supply,” said Marsh, who has not treated Sheen. “So there’s either damage to the kidneys or a person has a heart attack from not enough blood supply to heart. Plus, it’s a stimulant, so it speeds up the heart and makes it pump more quickly.”

Beyond the actual physical impact of drugs and alcohol, there’s also a potential for harm from the poor decisions and actions people engage in while under the influence.

According to Marsh, people whose judgment is impaired are more likely to have unsafe sex with multiple partners, to care less about what substances they are putting into their body and how they are putting them in — for example, needle injection — and are also more likely to be involved in a fatal accident.

“Here are the things that I see in my patients who use drugs for a long time: Hepatitis C, which comes from sharing needles and can lead to liver failure or liver cancer. People can also get HIV, which again, is needle related. And finally, people tend to smoke to fix up their mood in between periods of drug use, which eventually leads to lung cancer,” Marsh said.

But just because Sheen engages in risky behaviors doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll suffer any of these consequences anytime soon.

“The body can sustain the use of alcohol for decades, as evidenced by people who have used substances like alcohol, heroin and crack cocaine for decades,” Ablow said. “So it’s never been a compelling argument for me to try to convince people to get the help they need to save their bodies. The evidence is not in favor of that. Charlie Sheen’s body may well last long enough to ruin his life and the lives of many others.”

However, the longer Sheen survives and continues on this track, the more he puts his future health at risk.

“There’s the possibility of dementia ahead, which would render Mr. Sheen unable to think clearly and remember things clearly, as well as severe liver damage which could cause cirrhosis,” Ablow said.

But then there’s the question of why someone would choose to continually engage in these behaviors - especially someone like Sheen, who has been hospitalized, arrested and sentenced to rehabilitation, and presumably knows what the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse entail.

“Most people struggling with drug and alcohol dependence are looking for ways to anesthetize themselves and have deeper emotion and psychological pain that they have yet to address,” Ablow said. “So, in addition to genetics involved, there is a very significant component of suffering that has gone on that fuels the desire to use alcohol and drugs.”

Recovery would take a lot of work on the part of the addict, according to Marsh.

“Addiction is a chronic illness,” Marsh said. “To keep addiction stopped, a person has to work on it all the time. It’s not impossible to do, but it generally takes a lot of commitment by the person — and this is more likely to happen if the person has a lot to lose by continuing their addiction.”