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Broken Heart Syndrome: Symptoms & Treatment

The phrase ‘broken heart syndrome’ may conjure images of crying yourself to sleep, wrapped in a duvet devouring a tub of ice cream à la Bridget Jones. And while that’s a valid response to being unceremoniously dumped, it’s not the whole story. 

In fact, if the breakup has come as a shock to you – or feels particularly traumatic – it can actually trigger takotsubo cardiomyopathy, otherwise known as broken heart syndrome. 

Dr Kurt W. Kaulback, an interventional cardiologist and the Clinical Director of Network Cardiovascular Services for Inspira Health, defines broken heart syndrome as “a temporary, rapid weakening of the heart muscle that can cause chest pain, dizziness, sweating or shortness of breath.” 

But how do you know if you’re experiencing broken heart syndrome? And, if you are, do you need to seek medical intervention? 

As well as chatting to Dr Kurt, GLAMOUR interviewed Dr Marcus St. John, an interventional cardiologist at Baptist Health’s Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute, to find out more about broken heart syndrome. 

What is broken heart syndrome?

Dr Marcus outlines that broken heart syndrome (takotsubo cardiomyopathy) is usually caused by “sudden severe emotional stress triggered by such events as the death of a loved one, a car accident, a natural disaster or, potentially, stressors related to the pandemic we are currently experiencing.” 

He adds, “These life events are often difficult to predict or avoid, so recognizing symptoms is very important.”

The NHS notes that for those experiencing broken heart syndrome, “The heart muscle becomes suddenly weakened or “stunned”, causing the left ventricle (one of the heart’s main chambers) to change shape. It may be caused by a surge of hormones, particularly adrenaline, during a period of stress.”

According to the British Heart Foundation, the condition can “develop at any age, but typically affects more women than men.” The charity adds that the main symptoms of takotsubo cardiomyopathy are sudden, intense chest pain and shortness of breath.”

What causes broken heart syndrome?

According to Dr Marcus, the condition is triggered by “highly stressful events,” which “cause a release of stress hormones in the body that temporarily reduce the heart’s ability to pump efficiently and in a steady, normal pattern.”

Dr Kurt adds, “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.”

Is broken heart syndrome dangerous?

Dr Marcus explains that recognising the symptoms (such as the sudden onset of usually severe chest pain or shortness of breath that does not quickly resolve) and “seeking emergency medical attention” is the most important step in managing broken heart syndrome. 

He also emphasises the importance of preventative measures to reduce the effects of stress on the heart, such as “exercising, meditating, self-care and connecting with family and friends.”

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