What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?
We'll get to the answer in a moment. First, you need to know that stress-induced cardiomyopathy, also known as stress cardiomyopathy or "broken heart syndrome," is a very real thing. It is a temporary "stunning" of the heart following a traumatic event, such as the sudden death of a loved one. It goes by several names, including takotsubo cardiomyopathy (takotsubo is an octopus hunting pot used in Japan; the damaged heart takes on a similar shape).
Anthony Bashall, MD, of Franciscan Physician Network Indiana Heart Physicians, says broken heart syndrome may feel like you're having a heart attack, but you're not.
"The symptoms are very similar," says Dr. Bashall. "You may experience chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness and nausea. The difference is that it can happen even with low blood pressure, no blockage of the arteries and no history of heart disease."
Triggers can include a romantic breakup, recent death of a loved one, medical illness or any serious stressful event.
Researchers are still learning about the specific causes of broken heart syndrome. It is believed that sudden emotional stress causes a surge of hormones that, in essence, "stuns" the heart muscle. The left ventricle bulges and causes the heart to stop pumping blood normally. (That bulging left ventricle resembles the shape of the takotsubo pot mentioned earlier). The resulting symptoms may feel a lot like a heart attack but is a temporary form of heart failure.
There currently is no way to prevent stress-induced cardiomyopathy, other than learning basic stress management skills. Women are more likely than men to experience this condition, especially those over the age of 65.
So Can You Die from Broken Heart Syndrome?
"Stress-induced cardiomyopathy can be fatal, but that is rare, especially if the person gets hospitalized and treated quickly," says Dr. Bashall. "The heart muscle returns to normal."
Dr. Bashall says it's important to take quick action if you feel chest pain, shortness of breath or other symptoms that could be similar to those of a heart attack. Doctors won’t be able to diagnose your condition until you undergo testing that might include an electrocardiogram (EKG), echocardiography, chest x-ray, blood test or one of several other imaging procedures. Most people need to have a cardiac catheterization to determine the cause and plan of care.
"Get to the hospital immediately, and let the professionals diagnose your condition. If you truly are experiencing broken heart syndrome, you will likely experience a relatively quick recovery with a low chance for reoccurrence during your lifetime," says Dr. Bashall.