Broken Heart Syndrome

We all know that emotional stress can affect mental health, which can be detrimental to physical health and result in future complications. But a mysterious heart condition nicknamed “broken heart syndrome” has recently been identified, leading cardiologists and health experts to study the effects of sudden stress on the heart health of some patients – and particularly women – experiencing serious stress symptoms and signs of a heart attack following bad news. There may just be some physiological validity to the idea of “dying of a broken heart” or “being scared to death.”

What is Broken Heart Syndrome?

In medical terms, broken heart syndrome has been referred to as stress cardiomyopathy, stress-induced cardiomyopathy, and apical ballooning syndrome. The condition was first medically described in 1991 by doctors in Japan and termed “takotsubo cardiomyopathy” after the appearance of a pot-like image (or takotsubo) visible in a region of the heart of patients who were suffering from the condition.

Broken heart syndrome is a phenomenon experienced by individuals after undergoing sudden emotional stress causes such as grief, fear, anger, and shock. The condition mimics heart attack symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, and temporary weakening or impairment of the heart. Scientists believe that it is important to distinguish between stress-induced broken heart syndrome and heart attacks in patients in order to ensure proper treatment.

What Can Cause Broken Heart Syndrome?

Broken heart syndrome is believed to be caused by high levels of stress-related brain chemicals and hormones including adrenaline. However, little is understood about the exact mechanism that links increased stress chemicals and the impairment of the heart in some patients.

Since researchers began following cases of broken heart syndrome, it has been found that many events leading to emotional as well as physical stress preceded the heart condition and triggered broken heart syndrome. These triggers of stress have included the following:

  • news of an unexpected death of a loved one
  • a frightening medical diagnosis
  • domestic abuse
  • sudden financial loss
  • experiencing an asthma attack
  • car accident
  • being involved in an armed robbery
  • a surprise party

Researchers were also surprised to find that nine out of ten cases of broken heart syndrome occurred in women, and particularly those fifty years or older. Most of these patients had no previous history of heart disease at all, and appeared to be generally healthy.

Risks and Treatment of Broken Heart Syndrome

It is believed that in rare cases, individuals can die of stress cardiomyopathy; one case of broken heart syndrome required the use of a balloon pump to help the circulation of blood to the aorta (a major artery) through the blood vessels. It is believed that the patient would have died had this cardiovascular treatment not been implemented.

Most individuals suffering from stress cardiomyopathy, however, recover relatively quickly with no long-lasting effects. This is because heart impairment due to broken heart syndrome is not caused by the development of a blood clot, as is the case of heart failure due to a heart attack.

In most cases of broken heart syndrome, the patient’s heart is perfectly healthy, making it important to distinguish between this condition and the occurrence of a heart attack, which would lead to a diagnosis of coronary disease and require treatment such as heart medication. A heart attack is usually caused by the complete blockage of an artery due to a blood clot at the narrow site of a fatty buildup (atherosclerosis).

Nonetheless, it is important for individuals experiencing stress cardiomyopathy to receive proper diagnosis and medical treatment, which can include prescribed diuretics (water pills), vasodilators or beta blockers. It is possible for broken heart syndrome to recur.

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