If you’ve experienced heartbreak, you know it can be painful. But did you know intense emotional stress might actually harm your heart muscle? During the pandemic, this stress-induced heart problem, known as broken heart syndrome, is affecting more people than usual.
This heart condition usually follows a stressful or shocking event, such as:
- The death of someone you care about
- A breakup
- A sudden windfall or loss of money
- Even being the honoree at a surprise party
In rare cases, people develop the condition after taking certain drugs, including epinephrine.
This heart problem causes part of the heart to enlarge, so it's hard for it to pump blood. Experts believe it might be triggered by a sudden release of stress hormones like adrenaline. It occurs even in healthy people and is most common in women and people over age 50.
Broken Heart Syndrome is Real
Fortunately, this condition is treatable. This temporary heart condition is also referred to as stress-induced cardiomyopathy and takotsubo cardiomyopathy.
Symptoms: Like a Heart Attack
You may think you're having a heart attack when it could be broken heart syndrome. The key symptoms are similar: chest pain and shortness of breath. Additional symptoms include:
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Dizziness or fainting
- Low blood pressure
- Cardiogenic shock, which is a medical emergency and means the heart isn’t pumping enough blood
Broken heart syndrome and heart attacks can be deadly if you don't get treatment. Call 911 or go to the emergency room right away if you’re having symptoms.
Most People Fully Recover
Since broken heart syndrome and heart attacks have the same symptoms, it’s common to have a coronary angiogram to check for blocked arteries. These are characteristic of heart attacks but not broken heart syndrome. You'll also have other tests and an EKG.
Rapid Heartbeat? Dizziness?
If you're experiencing these symptoms, see your provider.
If there’s no blockage and your doctor confirms broken heart syndrome, you won’t need a surgical procedure like you might for a heart attack. Instead, your doctor might prescribe a combination of medications to control your blood pressure, heart rate, and stress.
People who receive timely treatment typically avoid lasting heart damage. Most people get better within days or weeks, while it may take a month or longer to recover from a heart attack.
Broken Heart Syndrome & Pandemic-Related Stress
Broken heart syndrome has become more common during the pandemic. This isn’t surprising since many of us are worried and stressed about our health, the well-being of loved ones, finances, and other concerns.
One study found that 7.8% of people hospitalized with acute heart symptoms in the early months of the pandemic received a broken heart syndrome diagnosis. In contract, fewer than 2% of these people had it before the pandemic.
Researchers blame the increase in psychological, social, and economic stress related to the pandemic. All study participants who were diagnosed with broken heart syndrome tested negative for COVID-19.
The study authors suggest that self-care measures like exercising, meditating, and keeping in touch with family and friends may help keep stress under control.
Be sure to talk to your doctor if you’re feeling stress or if you have any symptoms of broken heart syndrome.
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Really helpful article, Elizabeth! Even perfectly healthy people may go through emotionally stressful periods due to sudden loss and bereavement. If you are diagnosed with broken heart syndrome, your doctor might prescribe some heart medications that could continue for almost three months. Ask your doctor if you need an echocardiogram around four to six weeks after you first had symptoms to be sure your heart has recovered.