A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Broken heart syndrome: You can die of a broken heart

Single heart balloon floating away illustrating broken heart syndrome

Knowing the warning signs and how to prevent onset of broken heart syndrome, also commonly referred to as stress-induced cardiomyopathy or takotsubo cardiomyopathy, may help keep your heart healthy.

While broken heart syndrome symptoms often mirror that of a heart attack, its causes are unique to the condition. Knowing the warning signs and how to prevent onset of broken heart syndrome, also commonly referred to as stress-induced cardiomyopathy or takotsubo cardiomyopathy, may help keep your heart healthy.

Broken heart syndrome symptoms

Symptoms include chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness or loss of consciousness. Seek emergency care early if you experience any of these symptoms.

“Whether this is going to be an acute myocardial infarction, or a heart attack, from blocked arteries or broken heart syndrome, this could be a catastrophic illness and there is a risk of dying,” said Dr. Param Sharma, electrophysiologist with Marshfield Clinic Health System. “Do not ignore symptoms, even if you think it is emotional stress and think it is just going to go away. In some cases, your emotional stress is directly causing damage to the heart muscle, which will not just go away.”

Symptoms are associated with emotional stressors

“When we look at patients as they come in, they may have similar symptoms to heart attacks,” Dr. Sharma said. “There may be sudden onset chest pain or shortness of breath.”

Patients may develop a cardiac arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, which may lead to loss of consciousness or suddenly collapsing.

Symptoms are often noticed after significant emotional stress for the patient.

“For example, if there was an accident and the news was shared with someone close to that person, they may suddenly feel like there is weight on their chest, or they can’t breathe, or they may faint. That’s not unusual presentation of broken heart syndrome,” said Dr. Sharma.

Broken heart syndrome is more common in women, with roughly 90% of patients diagnosed with the condition being women. Other risk factors include having an underlying stress or anxiety-related disorder, having underlying depression and sudden emotional stress.

While broken heart syndrome often is a result of bad news or increased stress, the opposite emotion can have an effect on the heart, too.

“These symptoms can be associated with happy symptoms, too,” Dr. Sharma said. “Too much happiness can trigger this response, known as happy heart syndrome.”

Treatment depends on the symptoms patients experience

There is no standard treatment for broken heart syndrome. Treatment depends on the symptoms patients are experiencing and the heart muscle function.

“For patients experiencing heart failure, we’ll treat them for heart failure, which may include medications and diuretics,” Dr. Sharma said. “If the heart muscle strength is significantly reduced, we will use medications that help reduce the workload on the heart. Those are called afterload reducing agents. For patients with heart rhythm disorders, they may need medications or, rarely, may need pacemaker implants.”

Stress-reduction techniques may aid in prevention

While most patients with broken heart syndrome recover within one to four weeks, you can die of broken heart syndrome. It’s important to help manage mental and emotional health and knowing the warning signs.

“Too much of anything with this condition is bad. The extremes of stress and anxiety are bad,” Dr. Sharma said. “Not only concentrating on your physical health, but in this case, focusing on your mental health is important, too.”

It’s recommended to try:

  • Stress-reduction techniques
  • Meditation
  • Participating in hobbies

“There is about a 2% risk of recurrence of this, related to stress. If someone is already diagnosed with it and treated for it, they will need to work on or have proper care for their mental health and work on techniques to lower their chances of this happening again,” Dr. Sharma said.

Broken heart syndrome was widely unknown until the 1990s

The condition was first described by a physician in Japan in the 1990s, where they noticed patients coming in with complaints of sudden onset chest pain. The pain was noted immediately after significant emotional stress.

On an echocardiogram, the heart was described as resembling a Japanese pot used to catch octopus. This is where broken heart syndrome got its original name: takotsubo cardiomyopathy.

In Japanese, ‘tako’ means octopus and ‘tsubo’ means pot. When the left ventricle of the heart changes shape, it develops a narrow neck and a round bottom, making it look similar to the octopus trap.

“The base of the heart beats, or contracts, almost normally, but the rest of the heart balloons out, giving it its characteristic appearance,” said Dr. Sharma.

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