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Published on February 11, 2014

Broken Heart Syndrome

February 11, 2014

broken heartThe old saying holds a grain of truth: you really can die of a broken heart.

Although it may sound like something out of a romance novel, broken heart syndrome – a rare and somewhat mysterious malady – is real and potentially life threatening.

Also called stress cardiomyopathy, broken heart syndrome is usually triggered by a sudden, extremely traumatic experience such as the death of a loved one. During an episode, the lower chamber of the heart dramatically enlarges and stops pumping blood effectively. This may occur because the surge of stress hormones briefly constricts the blood vessels or because the cells of the heart are temporarily “stunned” by the hormones, dramatically changing the heart’s size. Whatever the cause, broken heart syndrome profoundly impairs the heart’s ability to function. Fortunately, as stress hormone levels fall, the heart’s size and pumping power return to normal as well.

Similar to, but not a heart attack

Someone with broken heart syndrome can appear to be having a heart attack, and may experience chest or arm pain, shortness of breath, sweating, and irregular heartbeat. In fact, the symptoms of broken heart syndrome and heart attack are so similar that physicians must perform sophisticated diagnostic tests to tell the difference. Despite their similarities, a heart attack and broken heart syndrome have important differences.

In the majority of heart attacks, a blood clot or other blockage cuts off the supply of blood, which can cause permanent damage to the heart muscle. Broken heart syndrome, on the other hand, usually does not involve any blockage, and heart cells do not die as they do during a heart attack. The effects of broken heart syndrome, while serious, are short term. Some people may need to take heart medication for a few weeks, but most recover quickly and completely.

Who gets it?

While broken heart syndrome can happen to anyone, women are far more likely than men to be affected, accounting for as many as 90 percent of cases. Age is another factor, and most cases of broken heart syndrome occur among women in midlife or after menopause. The majority of those affected by stress cardiomyopathy have no history of heart disease.

Take a broken heart seriously

Although temporary, broken heart syndrome is nevertheless a potentially life-threatening condition that requires immediate treatment. In some cases, it can lead to heart failure (when the heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs) or arrhythmia (a dangerously abnormal heartbeat).

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