What is Broken Heart Syndrome?

We all know about the pain of being broken-hearted. This human experience has been immortalised in song and literature. Most of us have experienced broken-heartedness at some point in our lives.

You may have assumed this was purely a metaphorical term to describe that wrenching emotional feeling. However, researchers have confirmed that a broken heart due to emotional stress is a real physical condition. 

Love, it seems, really can hurt. In rare cases, it can even damage the heart muscles as adrenaline floods through your body. 

Broken heart syndrome is also called stress cardiomyopathy or Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy - it was first observed in Japan in 1990. The symptoms mimic a heart attack, triggered by a sudden physical or emotional stress. Neuroscientists know that emotional pain is processed in the same area of the brain as physical pain, so perhaps it’s not too surprising that stress can cause this condition. 

How many people suffer Broken Heart Syndrome?

It’s estimated that broken-heart syndrome is responsible for about  2% of patients seen by medics with a suspected heart attack. The true figure may be higher.

What triggers Broken Heart Syndrome?

  • Grief from the death of a loved one 
  • A sudden shock – both positive (a surprise) and negative
  • Bad news.
  • Fear and stress
  • Extreme anger.

It’s not just strong emotions that can trigger this condition. Physical stress can also cause Broken Heart Syndrome

These include:

  • High fever
  • Stroke
  • Seizure
  • Difficulty breathing (such as an asthma attack or emphysema)
  • Significant bleeding
  • Low blood sugar

Symptoms of Broken Heart Syndrome

These symptoms may manifest after a shock nor some kind of emotional upheaval. 

  • Angina (chest pain) 
  • Shortness of breath
  • Arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats) 
  • Cardiogenic shock (when a suddenly weakened heart can’t pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs)

What are the differences between Broken Heart Syndrome and a heart attack?

Heart attacks usually occur due to blockages and blood clots forming in the coronary arteries. A heart attack happens when the blood supply to the heart is stopped, leaving the heart with scar tissue and irreversible damage.

People experiencing broken heart syndrome don’t have these issues, but experience a release of stress hormones in the blood like adrenalin, noradrenalin, epinephrine and norepinephrine. Experts think that these hormones temporarily interfere with the heart’s function. The good news is this improves quickly in most cases, often within weeks or just a few days, usually without permanent damage.

How is Broken Heart Syndrome treated?

Treatments include heart medications, anti-anxiety drugs, stress management and cardiac rehabilitation. Fortunately, it’s usually a temporary condition, death from broken heart syndrome is an extremely rare event (about 1%). In most cases, broken heart syndrome is a short, temporary condition with a full recovery.

Who is most affected by Broken Heart Syndrome?

Almost 90% of those affected are female, often in the age range 58 to 77. One theory is that oestrogen provides protection against Broken Heart Syndrome in younger women. As oestrogen depletes post-menopause, this makes women more vulnerable. Researchers have noted that Broken Heart Syndrome is on the rise - incidence of the disease has grown from less than 2% to 7.8% during the COVID-19 outbreak, according to a Cleveland Clinic study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"Families are extremely stressed by deaths of loved ones, and by losing jobs and homes," says C. Noel Bairey Merz, MD, director of the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center at the Smidt Heart Institute, and the Irwin and Sheila Allen Chair in Women’s Heart Research. "Our own studies of Takotsubo syndrome indicate it was already on the rise before the COVID-19 pandemic, partly because it’s better recognized than it used to be."

Can I protect myself against Broken Heart Syndrome?

Take your health seriously if you have been though a break up or bereavement. Try and distract yourself by being around people socially, even if it’s dinner with a close friend. This will help you to begin the journey back to feeling ok again.  If you experience shortness of breath or physical pain in the chest area, seek medical attention immediately.

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