You may have heard the term in the news: someone who is overwhelmed by a significant stressor or loss in turn suffers from broken heart syndrome. But this phenomenon is actually a real condition called stress cardiomyopathy – and it requires prompt medical care.
“Stress cardiomyopathy may be brought on by a sudden surge of stress hormones like adrenaline or epinephrine that can overwhelm the body and disrupt the heart’s normal pumping function,” says Aarti Patel, MD, a cardiologist at CentraState Medical Center in Freehold. “The heart doesn’t contract or relax as it should, and the structure of the heart muscle may change or weaken.”
Here are five things you should know about stress cardiomyopathy, or broken heart syndrome:
1. This condition is not always related to loss.
While grief can lead to stress cardiomyopathy, it’s also been linked to other strong emotional responses, like intense fear, surprise, or anger. Stressors such as an acute illness, car accident, or severe pain could bring on the condition.
2. It’s more common in older women.
We don’t know why some people are more prone to stress cardiomyopathy than others, but it tends to be more common in postmenopausal women. This may relate to decreased levels of estrogen after menopause, since estrogen can have a protective effect against stress hormones. Women’s hearts are also anatomically smaller than men’s, which may mean they are more easily overloaded by a release of stress hormones.
3. The symptoms mimic a heart attack.
When stress hormones stun the heart tissue, symptoms may be similar to those of a heart attack: sudden, severe chest pain, chest pressure, an irregular heartbeat, and shortness of breath. Some people with stress cardiomyopathy may feel dizzy or pass out. If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s important to seek medical care right away at the Emergency Department.
4. Testing can differentiate it from a heart attack.
Diagnosing a heart attack or stress cardiomyopathy involves similar testing, including blood tests, an electrocardiogram (EKG), imaging tests such as an echocardiogram or cardiac MRI, and a coronary angiogram, which is a test performed in an interventional cardiology lab to check for blockages in the coronary arteries. A heart attack usually involves artery blockages, but stress cardiomyopathy does not.
5. It’s temporary and reversible with medical care.
Left untreated, stress cardiomyopathy can lead to serious complications. But with proper treatment, people with stress cardiomyopathy can recover quickly and lead healthy lives. Treatment includes medication, monitoring in the hospital for several days, and follow-up appointments with a cardiologist over the next three months.
“Broken heart syndrome doesn’t mean you have a diminished ability to handle difficult situations; rather, it means your heart is talking to you,” says Dr. Patel. “Always trust your body. If you notice shortness of breath or other symptoms you haven’t had before, be your own advocate by getting it checked out. And if you’ve experienced an intense event or have high levels of stress or anxiety, seeking mental health care is also important.”
To learn more about cardiology services at CentraState or to find a cardiologist, visit centrastate.com/services/cardiology or call 866-236-8727.