A broken heart; Some may think that this is just a figurative term to describe a person that is hurting from a loss.  However, did you know that experiencing a broken heart can be very real?

Many years ago, I was working on a cardiac unit at a hospital.  There had been a patient in the ICU who passed away somewhat unexpectedly and just a short time later his wife of 65 years collapsed in the hospital lobby with chest pain.  Immediate treatment for a potential heart attack began  until it was finally determined that she was suffering from Broken Heart Syndrome.  The official name for this condition is Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy.  Cardiomyopathy is a condition that causes part of the heart muscle to become enlarged, thicker than they should be or very stiff.  When cardiomyopathy occurs, the heart dos not pump very well.  When the heart does not pump well, oxygen rich blood cannot feed the rest of the body which can cause organs and tissues to become damaged.

What is Broken Heart Syndrome?

Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy received this name because the enlarged portion of the heart (the left ventricle) represents a Japanese pot that is used to catch octopus.  The name of this pot in Japanese is Takotsubo.  Below you can see a diagram of a normal heart versus a heart with cardiomyopathy and a picture of the Japanese fishing pot.

photographs of left ventricle with apical ballooning, and of the tako-tsubo which the ventricle resembles

The exact cause of Broken Heart Syndrome is not known.  However, it is called Broken Heart Syndrome because the condition usually happens after a very stressful event such as the death of a loved one.  Symptoms of chest pain and difficulty breathing are very similar to that of a heart attack.  Researchers believe that factors such as a flood of stress hormones and narrowing of blood vessels in the heart after a stressful event may contribute to Takotsubo.

Ladies, as we focus on heart month, here is another statistic you need to know.  Broken Heart Syndrome is most common in post menopausal women and is 7.5 times more likely to happen in this population than men.

Recovery from Broken Heart Syndrome is very likely within a few days to a few weeks.  It is usually very treatable.  However, depending on the severity of the cardiomyopathy and a person’s medical history, Broken Heart Syndrome could lead to long term effects such as congestive heart failure, blood pressure problems, irregular heart rhythms and even death.

How Broken Heart Syndrome Differs from a Heart Attack

While the symptoms of Broken Heart Syndrome often feel just like a heart attack, the two conditions are different.  A heart attack happens when the blood vessels in the heart are blocked.  The blockage prevents oxygen rich blood from reaching parts of the heart and as a result that heart muscle dies.  With Broken Heart Syndrome there is not a complete blockage but rather decreased blood flow causing the left ventricle of the heart to blow up like a balloon.

What is the Treatment for Broken Heart Syndrome

Unlike a heart attack, there is no standard treatment for Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy.  It is often treated with medications such as Beta Blockers and ACE inhibitors that help the heart to pump more effectively.  Some may also need diuretics (water pills) if fluid begins to back up causing congestive heart failure.  Of course  a lot of rest and avoiding stressful situations is necessary.


So yes, believe it or not, a broken heart is real.  The pain experienced after any very stressful event is not just from emotions.  Acute stress just like long term stress can have major effects on your heart.

Always remember that time is muscle and if you experience any type of chest pain or shortness of breath, you should seek immediate medical attention.  Do not ignore symptoms.  If you witness someone experience chest pain or any other symptoms and they become unconcious, immediate CPR is vital to their chance of survival.

Thank you and remember to love your heart.  Not only this month but always!!