When Doctors Diagnose "Broken Heart Syndrome"

By Eliza Strickland | February 12, 2010 2:03 pm

broken-heartIn honor of Valentine’s Day, we bring you the story of how hearts really can break. Doctors do occasionally diagnose someone with “broken heart syndrome,” but the patients aren’t necessarily the lovelorn dump-ees of the world.

The heart problem, which is more technically known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy, can be brought on by all kinds of emotional and physical stresses. Externally, someone with broken heart syndrome may appear to be having a heart attack, but the physical mechanism is actually quite different.

ABC News reports:

While a heart attack is usually caused by blocked arteries, medical experts believe broken heart syndrome is caused by a surge in adrenaline and other hormones. When patients experience an adrenaline rush in the aftermath of a stressful situation, the heart muscle may be overwhelmed and become temporarily weakened.

This causes the heart’s main pumping chamber, the left ventricle, to stop contracting normally. Doctors estimate that 1 to 2 percent of patients diagnosed with heart attacks are in fact suffering from broken heart syndrome.

In keeping with its name, the disorder has been known to bring down people shocked by the death of a spouse, as in the case of a woman who keeled over on the hospital floor minutes after her husband was pronounced dead. For reasons that aren’t yet understood, broken heart syndrome is usually seen in post-menopausal women. But not all cases are related to the loss of a loved one–other reported triggers have included a bad case of stage fright, a migraine headache, and a surprise party.

Happily, doctors report that nearly 95 percent of broken heart patients make a complete recovery within two months, and the syndrome rarely recurs. So at least one old saying is true: Time does heal a broken heart.

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Image: iStockphoto

  • Kyle

    There’s an oopsie…“broken heat syndrome,”. Shouldn’t that have been heart?

    Love your stories, many go show that real science can look at fun things also. Not that MIs are fun but you know what I mean. Keep up the good work.

  • http://www.qtoner.us Mel

    This isn’t the first time i’ve actually heard about this. The heart can only take so much stress. It’s crazy to think that a bad heart break can actually kill you.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    Thanks for catching that typo, Kyle! Fixed it.

  • geeta

    So it doesn’t happen to men as much?
    The (figurative) broken heart can also cause COPD-like symptoms, as I recall reading some time ago

  • http://Sacramentostudies Carol Noel-Brazil

    I would like more information on the heart syndrom causing COPD – like
    symptoms. I had the stress induced cardiomyopathy and then was diagnosed with COPD the next week. Could the COPD be a mis diagnosis?

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