Matters of the Heart: Understanding Broken Heart Syndrome and How it can Harm the Body

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If you're familiar with any fairy tales or folklore, you've probably heard of fictional characters suffering or dying from a broken heart. Believe it or not, the stories aren't entirely devoid of fact.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, broken heart syndrome "is a condition in which extreme stress can lead to heart muscle failure." So losing a loved one or ending a serious relationship can not only harm your figurative heart, but your physical one, as well.

The official name for this syndrome is Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, but because the vast majority of cases occur during times of extreme emotional stress, it's become better known as broken heart syndrome. Here are a few frequently asked questions about this disorder that may help you understand it a bit more.

Are there symptoms?
Patients who have broken heart syndrome often experience similar symptoms to patients who have heart attacks. Chest pain, shortness of breath, and low blood pressure can all be experienced as symptoms and typically manifest very shortly after an extremely stressful event.

Is broken heart syndrome dangerous?
The truth is that this phenomenon has been discovered very recently, so there isn't much extensive research on the subject yet. But from what researchers have found thus far, it's safe to say that yes, it can be dangerous. Fortunately, the condition improves at a rapid rate, which means patients with a naturally strong heart shouldn't experience lasting effects.

Should I seek out emergency care?
Like sore throats and minor burns or back pain, chest pain and the other symptoms described should definitely not be ignored. If you're experiencing any symptoms consistent with what heart attack patients experience, you should seek out emergency services immediately. Many patients rely on the 24-hour service that emergency centers provide, and this condition should absolutely be treated immediately.

Who is at risk for broken heart syndrome?
Patients experiencing this are most frequently post-menopausal women who have undergone an extremely stressful event or series of events in rapid succession. While the condition is present in men and in younger women, the vast majority of patients are middle-aged women who have recently lost a loved one or gone through a major life change.

This isn't a condition that emergency centers see often, but it manifests as quickly as it improves. Fortunately, research has discovered that there is no lasting damage to the heart once the condition improves.