Valentine’s Day is upon us, which means for little kids, it’s a time for red and pink tees, heart-shaped candies, and handwritten greetings equitably distributed to every peer. However, for many of the 115.78 million single Americans—including those who are divorced, separated, and widowed, Valentine’s Day is anything but a happy occasion. Understanding that Valentine’s Day too often reminds us of those we lost, we are setting out to address a love-related myth: can one really suffer from a broken heart? The answer is yes. Takotsubo cardiomyopathy—broken heart syndrome—is real, and it’s named after an octopus trap (let us explain).
Broken heart syndrome is not something made up by Country music singers (although we do love a good Achy Breaky Heart line dance). It is a temporary heart condition often triggered by extreme emotions or a stressful situation, such as the loss of a loved one. Surgery or physical illness may also trigger the condition.
The syndrome is characterized by a temporary disruption of the heart’s normal pumping function in a portion of the heart, while the rest of the organ continues to function normally. Echocardiogram imaging of the heart muscle in individuals experiencing broken heart syndrome typically shows abnormal movements in the left ventricle walls. Most often, the abnormality appears as a ballooning of the lower part of the left ventricle. During constriction, the bulging ventricle looks like a “tako-tsubo,” a Japanese pot used by fishermen to trap octopuses. It is this image that has lent the name takotsubo cardiomyopathy to the condition.
Symptoms of Broken heart syndrome are often mistaken for a heart attack. They include chest pain and shortness of breath. If symptoms persist, or you experience a rapid, irregular heartbeat, you may be experiencing a heart attack and should call 911.
While the exact cause of broken heart syndrome is unknown, researchers believe it is caused by a surge of adrenaline or other stress hormones that temporarily damage the heart. Others believe symptoms are caused by a temporary constriction of the small or large heart arteries. What is known, however, is that broken heart syndrome is often triggered by an intensely emotional or physically traumatizing event, such as:
Some prescription medications or street drugs may also trigger broken heart syndrome, such as:
More than 90 percent of reported cases of broken heart syndrome occurs in women ages 58 to 75.
Broken heart syndrome often reverses itself in a few days or weeks, further proving that time heals all wound (but don’t take that expression literally; if you have an open wound or laceration, visit one of our urgent care clinics).
If you are unsure if the chest pain you are experiencing is a temporary case of broken heart syndrome, or something more serious, always seek medical care. If a heart attack is not the cause of your symptoms, your doctor can help you assess the cause of your symptoms, and if emotional in nature, he or she can provide you with resources to help you cope and recover.