Broken heart syndrome is a group of symptoms similar to those of a heart attack, occurring in response to a physical or emotional stress. Most people affected by broken heart syndrome think they are having a heart attack because symptoms, such as shortness of breath and chest pain, are similar in both conditions. However, those with broken heart syndrome do not have blocked coronary arteries, and usually make a fast and full recovery.
Broken heart syndrome is also called Takotusubo cardiomyopathy and stress-induced cardiomyopathy, meaning that stress has caused dysfunction or failure of the heart muscle.
According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute an estimated 1.2 million people in the United States in 2007 would have a myocardial infarction (an interruption of blood supply to the heart). About 1 percent of this estimate, or 12,000 people would have experienced broken heart syndrome.
Women are more prone than men to experience the symptoms of broken heart syndrome, particularly Asian and Caucasian postmenopausal women. Often a person experiencing broken heart syndrome has shown no sign of heart disease, and has been previously healthy.
The cause of broken heart syndrome is not fully understood. In most cases, symptoms are brought on by emotional or physical stress such as the death of a loved one, a divorce, the breakup of a romantic relationship, an asthma attack, an exhausting physical event, or even happy occurrences such as a surprise, a reunion, or being a big lottery winner. A person’s reaction to such events causes a release of stress hormones (catecholamines) that temporarily reduce the effectiveness of the heart’s pumping action, or cause it to contract too forcefully or wildly instead of in a steady pattern.
Symptoms may occur within minutes or not until hours after a stressful situation, and are similar to those of a heart attack. Emergency care should always be sought when experiencing these symptoms, since there is no way to determine their cause without proper testing and diagnosis by a doctor. Symptoms include the following:
Diagnostic tests include:
Based on test results, a number of clues help differentiate broken heart syndrome from a heart attack:
Initially, the symptoms of broken heart syndrome will be treated like those of a heart attack. Once a diagnosis is made, broken heart syndrome is treated with medicines such as ACE inhibitors to lower blood pressure, beta blockers to slow the heart rate, diuretics to decrease fluid buildup, and anti-anxiety medicines to manage stress.
Treatments such as angioplasty, stent placement, and surgery are used to treat a heart attack but are NOT used in cases of broken heart syndrome because they address the problem of blocked arteries, which is not found in broken heart syndrome.
At times, broken heart syndrome can lead to serious heart problems such as:
There are no known treatments for preventing broken heart syndrome but learning stress management, problem-solving, and relaxation techniques can be helpful in improving both psychological and physical health. Managing stress can also be improved with physical exercise and anxiety medications.
It is also important to avoid poor choices in managing stress such as drinking, overeating, illicit drug use or smoking. These are not permanent solutions, and could lead to additional health problems.
Although broken heart syndrome can occasionally be fatal, most people recover within days or weeks. There is no permanent damage to the heart muscle, and there is low risk for having a recurrence (no more than 10-percent of cases). In comparison, the recovery time from a heart attack can be a month or more.
The doctor may recommend a follow-up echocardiogram about 4 to 6 weeks after discharge from the hospital, and other visits to the doctor may be required depending on the specifics of the patient’s case.
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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 06/15/2018