Broken Heart Syndrome: Stress and the Breakdown of the Heart

Over the course of a lifetime, most people will know of someone who has “died of a broken heart.” We use this expression to describe the painful loss of love or a traumatic separation in someone’s life which leads to the decline of a person’s health to the point where they no longer have the will to go on living.

For many people who end up in the E.R. thinking they are having a heart attack, a broken heart is no longer an expression but an actual medical diagnosis: broken heart syndrome.

But what brought them to the breakdown of their heart? Let’s take a look at broken heart syndrome and some of its causes:

The Medical Science Behind the Broken Heart

Broken heart syndrome is a temporary heart condition brought on by intensely stressful situations. Doctors call this condition stress-induced cardiomyopathy or takotsubo cardiomyopathy, which can strike even in patients who are considered healthy.

The syndrome is often misdiagnosed as a heart attack because the symptoms (intense chest pain, trouble breathing) and test results (EKG, changes in blood substances) are similar. However, unlike a heart attack, there is no evidence of blocked arteries in a person suffering from broken heart syndrome. In fact, during a broken heart syndrome attack, the arteries remain open and the damage to the heart muscle can be more extensive than a typical heart attack.

The most fascinating part of the a broken heart syndrome attack? The heart returns to normal functioning after a few days — if the patient survived the initial incident. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the heart is only weakened for a short period of time and tends to have no permanent or long-term damage.

Who Is At Risk of Having Broken Heart Syndrome?

The American Journal of Cardiology published a study citing 6,230 cases of broken heart syndrome in 2012. Approximately 90 percent of those affected were women. The study found that it typically occurs in the post-menopausal years, with the average age around 65.

What triggers a Broken Heart Syndrome Attack?

Stress-induced cardiomyopathy is triggered by an extremely stressful event. According to the Mayo Clinic, the heart reacts to a surge of stress hormones causing sudden, intense chest pain.

Most cases of broken heart syndrome occur as the result of negative, emotional stress: the death of a loved one, a divorce, betrayal, near involvement in an accident, an argument or financial problems. Symptoms usually appear within minutes or hours after a person has been through a stressful experience.

There are a small percentage of cases that were triggered by positive, or happy, stress. A birthday party, an unexpected visit from a favorite friend or relative, or becoming a grandparent. Even physical events like trail riding or white water rafting have triggered attacks.

A study at the University Hospital Zurich in Switzerland found that, of the 95 percent of women affected by broken heart syndrome, the patients who suffered it through happy stress were on average 71 years or older, while the patients who suffered it by negative stress averaged 65 years old.

Preventing Broken Heart Syndrome

Researchers are still learning about broken heart syndrome and no treatment suggestions have been made on how to prevent it.

Since the majority of cases are triggered by an emotionally upsetting or serious event, most physicians agree that a key to prevention is learning how to manage stress through relaxation techniques, mild physical activity and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

If you experience occasional chest pain or shortness of breath during intensely stressful times, be sure to consult your doctor as soon as possible to determine the cause. Additionally, ask your therapist for recommendations on recognizing and managing stress in your life.

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