Can Heart Break Actually Break your Heart?
In 2010 Wall Street journal reported about Dorothy Lee, a woman who suffered symptoms reminiscent of a heart attack but surprisingly did not experience it all.
Mrs. Lee and her husband were driving one night when they accidentally hit a curb. Lee looked at her husband whose head was bobbing a few times before falling on his chest. After calling 911 and rushing to the hospital, she was told that her husband of forty years had died of a heart attack. Suddenly Lee began feeling chest pains and became unconscious. According to her doctors, her test results showed no sign of coronary blocked arteries, a common reason for heart attack. They concluded that what she suffered from was, in fact, broken-heart syndrome.
Broken heart syndrome (also clinically known as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy or stress-induced cardiomyopathy) is a sudden weakening of the muscles of the heart. When the body feels extreme emotions or trauma, it can release massive amounts of adrenalin weakening the heart’s ability to contract and pump blood. When this occurs, the heart temporarily slows down or stops, mimicking the signs of a heart attack.
Some of these symptoms include upper body discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or upper part of the stomach, shortness of breath, chest discomfort, nausea, vomiting, light-headedness, breaking out in a cold sweat.
Illustration showing changes in heart shape when a norm person (A) undergoes Takotsubo cardiomyopathy (B)
Most doctors link the cause of broken-heart syndrome to two factors – emotional and non-emotional stressors. Emotional stressors could be any anxiety or stress-inducing situation such as breaking up with a partner, losing money in a casino, or stage fright. The most common situation, however, is spousal death. According to a 1996 study involving 158,000 Finnish couples, researchers observed that the highest incidence rate of unforeseen death is correlated to the sudden passing of one’s spouse. These “bad” or “negative” emotions are not the only factors though as any overwhelming feeling of happiness, excitement, or surprise can also trigger the syndrome. This is why many cases of people suffering heart maladies occur during concerts and raves.
Non-emotional stressors, according to Dr. Wittstein of Johns Hopkins, are as common emotional triggers. Physical stress from a sudden drop in blood pressure, asthma attack, surgical procedure, an adverse drug reaction and withdrawal from alcohol can all cause heart failure. Another non-emotional stressor could also be the relationship between adrenalin and heart-muscle cells. Dr. Wittstein states that adrenaline allows calcium to flow into heart cells, but excess of it may stun the heart. He also adds that even a person’s genetic disposition may make a person more sensitive or susceptible to broken-heart syndrome.
A person’s age and wellbeing also makes them more vulnerable. Dr Alexander Lyon, a consultant cardiologist at the Royal Brompton says that post-menopausal women make up 90% of those diagnosed with broken heart syndrome. There is no scientific explanation yet on why it mostly affects pre-menopausal women, but speculations suggest that estrogen may have a crucial role. Lyon adds that many men also suffer from extreme stress but most of them already collapse and drop down dead even before they reach the hospital. Women on the other hand may recover faster.
Recovery period for those who have experienced broken heart syndrome is usually two weeks depending on the person’s treatment and health. Although there is no cure or actual medications to stop the syndrome from reoccurring, doctors all suggest that reducing stress is the best solution.
Stress and a broken heart doesn’t need to be the reason for a potentially fatal ailment. Everyone can reduce stress or anxiety by simply exercising, getting enough sleep, and staying away from foods with sugar and caffeine content. In cases of death and loss, people can reduce their grief and trauma by confiding in friends or seeking professional help if necessary.