You Wanted to Know: A Broken Heart

Felt heart

No one enjoys having their heart broken. But for some people who have experienced an emotionally traumatic event like the loss of a loved one or a break up, a “broken heart” can become a medical problem in addition to an emotional one. One of my viewers, @Just_Me_4_Him, asked me about this unusual phenomenon on Twitter

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In takotsubo cardiomyopathy, also known as broken heart syndrome, the heart’s normal function becomes temporarily disrupted, often due to a very stressful event. Part of the heart (usually the left ventricle), suddenly becomes weak and stops pumping as hard as the rest of the heart, which continues to function normally or begins pumping even harder to try to compensate. In Japanese, takotsubo means “fishing pot for trapping octopus” – this is what the weakened left ventricle looks like on scans.

The sudden change in the heart’s function is believed to be due to a sudden rush of stress hormones like adrenaline, which basically “stun” the heart and prevent the left ventricle from contracting as well as it usually does. Common precipitating events include the loss of a loved one, losing a lot of money, experiencing a natural disaster, divorce, a car accident, or even a surprise party. This syndrome is very uncommon, but over 90% of cases occur in women between the ages of 58 and 75.

The symptoms of broken heart syndrome often mimic a heart attack, with shortness of breath and chest pain being most common. Some people may also experience an irregular or very fast heart rate. An EKG may even show changes similar to what is seen during a heart attack, but there will be no evidence of blockage in the coronary arteries (which is what causes heart attacks). Anyone with sudden-onset or persistent shortness of breath or chest pain should call 911 and get medical attention right away.

Most of the time, people with broken heart syndrome recover completely within a month. Doctors may use medications such as ACE inhibitors, beta blockers or diuretics to support your heart while it is healing, but most people stop taking these after they get better. Rarely, the syndrome may cause complications such as fluid backup in the lungs, low blood pressure or an arrhythmia and can result in death, so many people are kept in the hospital until it is clear their heart function is improving. Fortunately, it is unlikely that someone who has had broken heart syndrome once will have it a second time.