A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Is it a heart attack or a broken heart?

Single heart balloon floating away from a bunch of balloons - illustrationCan you suffer what seems like a heart attack, only to have it be identified later as broken heart syndrome (BHS)?

The answer is “yes.”

You may be surprised to learn BHS is for real, as reported by the American Heart Association under the official title of stress-induced cardiomyopathy. It has taken the place of the largely anecdotal “dying of a broken heart,” although people seldom die from BHS.

Research validates BHS

Recent research has raised BHS from what many in the medical community thought was pure coincidence, dying of a broken heart, to a legitimate health hazard.

“BHS is a reaction to a large surge of stress hormones caused by an emotionally stressful event,” said Kelly Rasmussen, a cardiology nurse practitioner. “It’s sometimes misdiagnosed as a heart attack because symptoms and test results are similar.”

A major difference is there is typically no evidence of blocked or narrowed arteries in BHS as there can be with a heart attack.

Most recover

While BHS can lead to severe short-term heart muscle failure, it is usually treatable. Most people who experience it make a full recovery within weeks and are at low risk of it happening again. Recovery time is usually within days or weeks, compared to a month or more for a heart attack.

Signs and symptoms of BHS are angina, or chest pain/pressure, and shortness of breath which typically occur after extreme emotional or physical stress. These symptoms, except stress, are also potential signs of a heart attack. You should seek medical care immediately if you experience them.

Rarely seen here

BHS is rare enough that Rasmussen has seen just two patients with it, both when she was working in a hospital setting years ago. These patients did not die. They underwent standard testing to rule out heart attacks or significant blockages, then were studied for previous health events and stressful situations and we “put the pieces together,” according to Rasmussen.

Medications usually are prescribed to help the heart muscle recover from changes that happened from the stress hormones.

So, bottom line? It’s a far cry from dying from a broken heart.

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