What becomes of the broken hearted? It’s a fairly common scenario: An elderly woman suffers what appears to be a massive heart attack immediately after hearing shocking news. Researchers at Johns Hopkins have recently discovered that heart attacks resulting from sudden emotional stress may not be heart attacks at all. They say that tragic or shocking events can stun the heart and produce classic heart attack-like symptoms, including chest pain, shortness of breath and fluid in the lungs. The resulting condition is actually a stress cardiomyopathy – or, more poetically, “broken heart syndrome” – not a true heart attack.
Calling a stress cardiomyopathy a broken heart is misleading
Broken heart syndrome is caused by a surge in adrenalin and other stress hormones that temporarily “stun” the heart. These chemicals can be temporarily toxic to the heart, effectively stunning the muscle and producing symptoms similar to a typical heart attack, including chest pain, fluid in the lungs, shortness of breath and heart failure.
Sometimes broken heart syndrome is caused by a happy occasion, such as a surprise party. But more often the trigger is bad news, including court appearances, being robbed or a fierce argument.
Researchers found that the damage caused during cardiomyopathy is reversible, and that the heart actually heals itself from the event relatively quickly. Recovery rates for those with broken heart syndrome are much faster than typically seen after a heart attack. Stressed patients show dramatic improvement in their hearts’ ability to pump within a few days and generally recover completely within two weeks. In contrast, partial recovery after a heart attack can take weeks or months and, frequently, the heart muscle damage is permanent.
Most heart attacks are caused by a complete blockage of a heart artery due to a blood clot forming at the site of narrowing from fatty buildup (atherosclerosis). In broken heart syndrome, the heart arteries are not blocked, although blood flow may be sluggish.
Broken heart syndrome happens significantly more often for women than men (at least 9 times out of 10) and researchers say that while stress cardiomyopathy is not as common as a typical heart attack, it occurs much more frequently than doctors realize.