Emotions, stress can cause broken heart syndrome
CHAMPAIGN — You thought the love would last forever, and now your heart hurts so much you can barely breathe.
A broken heart can mend over time, to be sure. But sometimes when love hurts, you need to get to a doctor without delay.
Intense emotional reactions and major stress can bring on broken heart syndrome, a condition that can mimic a heart attack.
It's not a heart attack, but it can be life-threatening all the same, because it causes heart muscle weakness and can also disrupt your heart rhythm.
Most people recover with treatment, but in rare cases it can be fatal.
"It is real," says Dr. Abe Kocheril, a cardiac electrophysiologist with Christie Clinic. "We've seen a few cases locally."
Typically, someone with broken heart syndrome — also called also called stress cardiomyopathy — is grieving an emotional loss such as a break-up, a divorce, or the death of a loved one, or is dealing with severe stress, Kocheril says.
What happens physically in broken heart syndrome is part of the heart becomes acutely dilated and doesn't pump well, causing sensations similar to a heart attack — chest pain and shortness of breath.
But a heart attack occurs when blood supply to the heart becomes blocked, usually as a result of coronary heart disease.
When someone is suffering from broken heart syndrome, the heart instead becomes overwhelmed by rising levels of stress hormones, Kocheril says.
"It weakens the heart muscle," he says. "It's like flogging a horse. It becomes toxic to the heart."
Sometimes, an arrhythmia (an irregular heartbeat) or cardiogenic shock in which the heart can't pump enough blood, occurs with broken heart syndrome. Cardiogenic shock can be fatal without fast treatment.
Doctors tell the difference between a heart attack and broken heart syndrome with an EKG (electrocardiogram) test that checks for heart rhythm problems, and tests for blockages.
Doctors also see an unusual shape of the left ventricle of the heart in broken heart syndrome, Kocheril says. It takes on the rounded form of a Japanese octopus-catching pot called a takotsubo, part of yet another name for this condition (takotsubo cardiomyopahty) that was first reported in the Japanese population.
Post-menopausal women tend to be most vulnerable to broken heart syndrome, possibly, researchers have suggested, due to reduced levels of estrogen.
It's not always the result of grief and lost love. Cumulative stress can also be the culprit in broken heart syndrome, Kocheril says.
The good news is this condition is usually treatable, he said. Patients are typically given drugs called beta blockers to slow down the heart and block the stress chemicals.
Most patients recover fully within six weeks without permanent damage to their hearts, and usually, "the outlook is positive," Kocheril said.
In addition to what's needed to physically heal the heart, he says, sometimes counseling and exercise are also recommended to help deal with the emotional pain and stress.
"One of my patients, it was a matter of saying it was OK to say no, because she was one these saintly women who takes on everything," he said.