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Broken Heart Syndrome: It’s A Real Thing


And it can land you in the emergency room. Learn more about this condition and who is most susceptible.

Broken heart syndrome may sound like a trivial affliction, but it’s anything but.

Often occurring minutes or hours after a severe emotional or physical event, the symptoms of broken heart syndrome often mimic the signs of a heart attack, such as intense chest pain, shortness of breath and sweating. Unlike heart attacks, however, which are normally caused by blocked arteries, broken heart syndrome causes the heart’s left ventricle to swell and pump less effectively.

First described in Japan in 1990, this disease of the heart is also called takotsubo cardiomyopathy because the ventricle temporarily enlarges and resembles a takotsubo, a trap used by Japanese fishermen to catch octopus.  Another name for the syndrome is stress cardiomyopathy.

Heart Attack versus Broken Heart Syndrome: Causes and symptoms

Heart attackBroken Heart Syndrome
Symptoms include intense chest pain, shortness of breath and sweating, but may vary among men and womenSymptoms include intense chest pain, shortness of breath and sweating
Usually caused by blocked arteriesUsually triggered by extreme emotional or physical duress/illness
May cause lasting heart damage or deathThe heart usually returns to normal within days or weeks
Common among men and womenMost common among post-menopausal women

Triggers for broken heart syndrome

A loved one’s death, a romantic breakup, an intense argument and unexpected events— whether negative or positive—may cause the syndrome. Other triggers include surgery, seizures, severe asthma attacks, high fever or low blood sugar and pneumonia.

It’s believed that a surge of stress hormones and chemicals to the heart play a role in broken heart syndrome. Also, British researchers recently reported an apparent link between the syndrome and functionality in the part of the brain that controls the beating of the heart.

Tests to identify the condition

Because heart attack and broken heart symptoms can be so similar, it can be difficult for medical professionals to distinguish between the two without physical exam and tests. According to the Mayo Clinic, tests may include:

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) to look for heart rhythm issues
  • Coronary angiogram to rule out a heart attack. This test examines the heart's blood vessels via injected dye and X-ray imaging; blockages in blood vessels are often seen in heart attacks but not in broken heart syndrome
  • Echocardiogram to show if the heart is enlarged or misshapen, which can be a sign of broken heart syndrome
  • Blood tests to look for elevated levels of cardiac enzymes, common in broken heart syndrome
  • Cardiac MRI to get detailed images of the heart’s structure

Once a broken heart diagnosis is made, doctors may prescribe medications to reduce heart strain and to prevent future attacks. The good news: though some people have repeated episodes of broken heart syndrome, the vast majority do not.

While there is no definitive treatment for the syndrome, researchers in Scotland have just begun a three-year trial that attempt to determine if exercise conditioning and psychological therapy can effectively treat people diagnosed with the condition.

Risk increases dramatically for women ages 50-74

Research from the Journal of the American Heart Association analyzing cases of broken heart syndrome from 2006-2017 found that the condition is on the rise, especially among women 50 and older.

In fact, diagnosed cases increased between 6 to 10 times among women aged 50-74, and postmenopausal women account for 90% of all cases One possible reason: postmenopausal women have decreased estrogen, which aids in blood flow.

A drastic acceleration in diagnoses during the pandemic

Given the added stressors brought on by the pandemic, it’s not surprising that broken heart syndrome diagnoses have significantly increased. The National Institutes of Health reported a “drastic increase” in cases since the onset of COVID. It’s also thought the damages caused by COVID infections may contribute to the rise.

Potential complications

Broken heart syndrome usually resolves in a short period of time if patients receive medical care. However, according to experts, complications may occur such as:

  • Congestive heart failure
  • Low blood pressure
  • Shock
  • Irregular heartbeats, which may be serious and even life-threatening
  • Backup of fluid into the lungs (pulmonary edema)
  • Heart failure
  • Blood clots in the heart

Always get chest pain checked out

If you have persistent or intense heart pain, or a very fast or irregular heartbeat, call 911 or go to the emergency room. Heart attacks can cause lasting damage and death. Even broken heart syndrome can be life-threatening if not treated.

Reduce stressors in your life

Managing stress can help reduce your risk of broken heart syndrome and improve your overall heart health. And, of course, less stress makes for a happier life.

Horizon Health News is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.