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What becomes of a broken heart? As it turns out, a serious—but temporary—health issue.
Physical pain you may feel in your chest after an emotionally or physically stressful event is real—it’s called stress cardiomyopathy, or broken heart syndrome, and it’s a temporary, rapid weakening of the heart muscle that can cause chest pain, dizziness, sweating or shortness of breath.
“Broken heart syndrome symptoms mimic heart attack symptoms, so it’s vital to listen to your body and call 9-1-1 if you experience other symptoms of a heart attack or if the pain, shortness of breath, dizziness and sweating do not resolve,” said Kurt W. Kaulback, MD, FACC, clinical director for network cardiovascular services at Inspira Health and a member provider with Cardiac Partners at Cooper and Inspira.
Symptoms of broken heart syndrome could start minutes to hours after the stress event. Luckily, the effects of the syndrome are often temporary, resolving in days or weeks.
What causes broken heart syndrome?
“While the cause is not completely clear, we think broken heart syndrome may begin after stress hormones like adrenaline spike following strong emotional stress, physical illness or even surgery,” said Kaulback. “The arteries around the heart could narrow, reducing blood flow to the heart.”
Emotional events, such as surprise, anger from an argument, sudden loss, shock or grief, and physical illness, such as a stroke, seizure, high fever, bleeding, asthma, emphysema or low blood sugar, can lead to broken heart syndrome. A COVID-19 infection may also lead to broken heart syndrome.
Though patients who have broken heart syndrome usually recover a few days to a few weeks later, it’s possible to experience lingering effects. An irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia), fluid in the lungs, low blood pressure, heart failure, blood clots in the heart or shock are possible. In some rare cases, broken heart syndrome can be fatal.
How broken heart syndrome is diagnosed and treated
If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms of broken heart syndrome, or heart-attack-like symptoms, get medical care immediately.
“To diagnose broken heart syndrome and rule out a heart attack, a doctor will start with a physical exam, ask you about your medical and family history and may ask if you’ve experienced a stressful event,” said Kaulback.
If your doctor suspects broken heart syndrome, they may conduct:
- An electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) to measure your heart’s electrical activity
- A coronary angiogram to view your heart’s blood vessels on an X-ray
- An echocardiogram, which uses sound waves to create an image of your heart
- A cardiac MRI, which produces images of the heart
If your doctor confirms you have broken heart syndrome, they may admit you to the hospital to recover.
“Your doctor may also recommend a cardiac rehabilitation program or medication to help you recover from broken heart syndrome,” said Kaulback.
“The good news about broken heart syndrome is that it is rare and not likely to recur,” said Kaulback.