Broken heart syndrome is a condition in which extreme stress can lead to heart muscle failure. The failure is severe, but often short-term.
Most people who experience broken heart syndrome think they may be having a heart attack, a more common medical emergency caused by a blocked coronary (heart) artery. The two conditions have similar symptoms, including chest pain and shortness of breath. However, there’s no evidence of blocked coronary arteries in broken heart syndrome, and most people have a full and quick recovery.
Broken heart syndrome is a recently recognized heart problem. It was originally reported in the Asian population in 1990 and named takotsubo cardiomyopathy (KAR-de-o-mi-OP-ah-thee). In this condition, the heart is so weak that it assumes a bulging shape (“tako tsubo” is the term for an octopus trap, whose shape resembles the bulging appearance of the heart during this condition). Cases have since been reported worldwide, and the first reports of broken heart syndrome in the United States appeared in 1998. The condition also is commonly called stress-induced cardiomyopathy.
The cause of broken heart syndrome is not fully known. In most cases, symptoms are triggered by extreme emotional or physical stress, such as intense grief, anger, or surprise. Researchers think that the stress releases hormones that “stun” the heart and affect its ability to pump blood to the body. (The term “stunned” is often used to indicate that the injury to the heart muscle is only temporary.)
People who have broken heart syndrome often have sudden intense chest pain and shortness of breath. These symptoms begin just a few minutes to hours after exposure to the unexpected stress. Many seek emergency care, concerned they are having a heart attack. Often, patients who have broken heart syndrome have previously been healthy.
Women are more likely than men to have broken heart syndrome. Researchers are just starting to explore what causes this disorder and how to diagnose and treat it.
Broken Heart Syndrome Versus Heart Attack
Symptoms of broken heart syndrome can look like those of a heart attack.
Most heart attacks are caused by blockages and blood clots forming in the coronary arteries, which supply the heart with blood. If these clots cut off the blood supply to the heart for a long enough period of time, heart muscle cells can die, leaving the heart with permanent damage. Heart attacks most often occur as a result of coronary heart disease (CHD), also called coronary artery disease.
Broken heart syndrome is quite different. Most people who experience broken heart syndrome have fairly normal coronary arteries, without severe blockages or clots. The heart cells are “stunned” by stress hormones but not killed. The “stunning” effects reverse quickly, often within just a few days or weeks. In most cases, there is no lasting damage to the heart.
Because symptoms are similar to a heart attack, it is important to seek help right away. You, and sometimes emergency care providers, may not be able to tell that you have broken heart syndrome until you have some tests.
All chest pain should be checked by a doctor. If you think you or someone else may be having heart attack symptoms or a heart attack, don't ignore it or feel embarrassed to call for help. Call 9–1–1 for emergency medical care. In the case of a heart attack, acting fast at the first sign of symptoms can save your life and limit damage to your heart.
Research is ongoing to learn more about broken heart syndrome and its causes.
The symptoms of broken heart syndrome are treatable, and most people who experience it have a full recovery, usually within days or weeks. The heart muscle is not permanently damaged, and the risk of broken heart syndrome happening again is low.