Broken Heart Syndrome 101: It Is Possible To Break Your Heart

March 15, 2023

You might have heard about some older couples who die days or even hours apart from each other, with many claiming it was due to a ‘broken heart’ of losing their best friend and spouse. But is it true? Despite the cliché and thought it is rare, yes it is possible for you to die of a broken heart due to the amount of stress and grief you might be experiencing. Whenever dealing with a particularly stressful situation, some of us may experience intense and sharp chest pains and believe we are suffering a heart attack, however, it may actually be broken heart syndrome.

What Is Broken Heart Syndrome?

Broken heart syndrome formally called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, but also referred to as apical ballooning syndrome or acute stress cardiomyopathy, is a temporary heart condition often caused by intense, stressful situations, such as the loss of a loved one, hence why many say they are suffering from a ‘broken heart.’ Patients who are dealing with broken heart syndrome may experience sudden chest pain and believe they are suffering a heart attack due to the severity of the pain.

This treatable condition is the result of a temporary disruption in the heart’s normal pumping function in one particular area, while the remainder of the heart either functions properly or with more forceful contractions. Some experts believe the condition can even be caused by the heart’s reaction to a surge of stress hormones. Thankfully, this condition is treatable and will usually reverse itself in a matter of days or weeks.

Signs & Symptoms

As horrifyingas it can be, broken heart syndrome can mimic numerous symptoms of a heart attack and cause a patient to believe they are experiencing cardiac arrest. Common symptoms of broken heart syndrome include intense chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness or fainting, low blood pressure, nausea, and an irregular heartbeat. Symptoms typically start anywhere up to a few hours after an individual has experienced extreme stress or shock. Any long-lasting or persistent chest pain can be a sign of an impending heart attack, so it is essential individuals take it seriously and seek medical attention immediately.

How is broken heart syndrome different from a heart attack? Generally speaking, heart attacks are caused by the blockage of an artery within the heart, which is the result of a blood clot forming at the site of narrowing from the fatty buildup in the artery wall. However, with broken heart syndrome, the arteries are not blocked despite a reduction in the blood flow to the heart.

What Causes A ‘Broken Heart’?

Unfortunately, there is no exact and clear cause for broken heart syndrome. However, there are a few contributing factors that can lead to an individual developing this uncommon condition. Medical professionals believe one of the primary causes of broken heart syndrome is when an individual experiences a surge of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which can cause temporary damage the heart. However, how these hormones can possibly hurt the heart is not completely clear, but a temporary constriction of the small or large arteries of the heart due to the stress a patient experienced is believed to play a significant role.

An intense physical or emotional event typically precedes broken heart syndrome, and some of these triggers include the unexpected death of a loved one, domestic abuse, a divorce or separation, job loss, winning or losing a lot of money. Other triggers include a terrifying medical diagnosis, strong arguments, a surprise party, and physical stressors such as an asthma or panic attack, a car accident, or major surgery. It is also possible some types of medications, although rare, can cause broken heart syndrome for some individuals due to a huge surge of stress hormones. These medications include epinephrine or an EpiPen for severe allergic reactions, duloxetine, which treats nerve issues or depression, venlafaxine, which treats depression, and levothyroxine for those afflicted with thyroid gland problems.

Can A Broken Heart Be Treated?

Unfortunately, broken heart syndrome has no standard treatment, but it is clear treatment can not begin until a proper diagnosis has been reached and medical professionals can rule out a heart attack. There are various ways to diagnose broken heart syndrome, which include a personal history and physical exam, electrocardiogram (ECG), echocardiogram, multiple blood tests, a chest X-ray, cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and a coronary angiogram. Considering broken heart syndrome often mimics the symptoms of cardiac arrest, doctors will conduct a coronary angiogram quickly to rule out a heart attack.

Once it is clear to doctors that broken heart syndrome is the cause of the individual’s symptoms, they will prescribe heart medications for the patient to take while they’re in the hospital, such as angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, beta blockers, or diuretics. These medications can greatly help to reduce the pressure and workload on the heart and may prevent future attacks from occurring. Many patients admitted to a hospital for broken heart syndrome make a full recovery approximately within a month of being diagnosed.

Condition Complications & Prevention

There are numerous risk factors associated with broken heart syndrome, such as who is at the highest risk of developing this rare condition. Some of the risk factors include sex, as females are more affected than males; age, as most individuals who experience it are over the age of fifty; those afflicted with a neurological condition such as epilepsy; and a previous or current psychiatric disorder, such as anxiety or depression. Broken heart syndrome can be fatal, but this is rare. This condition can also lead to a few complications, such as a backup of fluid in the lungs, known as pulmonary edema; low blood pressure, known as hypotension; disrupted heartbeats; and heart failure.

Although prevention is not guaranteed, the chances of an individual experiencing another episode of this syndrome are incredibly low. There is no proven form of therapy to prevent additional attacks, however, many physicians recommend long-term treatment with beta blockers or similar medications able to block the potentially damaging effects of stress hormones on the heart in an educated attempt to try and prevent it from occurring again.

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