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Myth Busting: Can Our Hearts Really Break?

Health Hub
Author name: Lee Health

To be human means - at some point in life - that someone or something is going to break your heart.

Perhaps you lost a loved one or a coveted relationship, endured a divorce or separation, or survived a serious illness or injury. Maybe there is another type of major life change or traumatic event that causes your chest to feel that deep and profound ache.

However you describe heartache or a breaking heart, we all know what it feels like.

But is “heartbreak” just an expression to describe a powerful emotion or is there some health-related science behind it?

There’s a name for that

Broken heart syndrome, also called induced cardiomyopathy, mimics the symptoms of a heart attack but doesn’t involve any underlying cardiovascular disease.

The American Heart Association reports that a surge of stress hormones can bring on cardiomyopathy. The surge can cause chest pain, shortness of breath, and an irregular heartbeat.

The condition was first identified as a transient heart condition in Japan in the early 1990s. Patients experienced chest pain or shortness of breath after severe psychological or physical stress, such as an argument, news of the death of a loved one, or a car accident.

“Interestingly, patients appear to have an acute heart attack but are found to have no blockages in the coronary arteries after cardiac catheterization,” explains Anita Arnold, D.O., a board-certified cardiologist with Lee Physician Group.

“However, there is abnormal movement of the left ventricle, including ballooning of the apex.”

“Although we don’t know the exact cause behind stress cardiomyopathy, we think the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline weakens the left ventricle,” Dr. Arnold says. “It mostly affects elderly women because their levels of estrogen are lower following menopause, and also afflicts Asians and Caucasian women.”

The feeling of a broken heart usually goes away, and most patients survive the initial shock and make a full and quick recovery with no permanent damage to the heart muscle.

How do you mend a broken heart?

“Treatment options include routine heart failure medications, such as beta blockers, ACE and aldosterone inhibitors, along with diuretics,” Dr. Arnold says. “We teach patients the importance of following a specific congestive heart failure diet, maintaining daily weights, and appropriate sodium and fluid restrictions.”

A patient who has had broken heart syndrome before may have another episode if the condition is left untreated.

“The good news is that if identified and treated early, the systolic dysfunction and ventricle wall abnormalities improve in approximately four weeks and most patients recover fully within three months,” Dr. Arnold says. “However, it is important to remain on lifelong medical therapy to avoid a reoccurrence.”

Much of broken heart therapy is psychological.

We simply have to learn to cope with big moments in our lives. That means therapy, meditation, learning to find relaxing hobbies, regular exercise, deep breathing, support groups – and being better prepared all around when life gets tough.

How to help prevent broken heart syndrome

The easy advice to dodge a broken heart is to avoid any physical or emotional stress. But we all know that’s impossible. Life is full of stressors that strike out of the blue, and we simply can’t be prepared for life’s curveballs.

The key to enduring all of life’s slings and arrows is being in good physical condition. Cardiologists recommend:

  • Eating a heart-healthy diet
  • Maintaining an ideal body weight
  • Engaging in regular aerobic exercise
  • Avoiding excessive alcohol

Dr. Anita Arnold, D.O., FACC, FSCAI, has expertise in post-chemotherapy heart failure (cardio-oncology), preventive cardiology, and women's health. To schedule an appointment or consultation with Dr. Arnold, call Lee Health Cardiology at 239-343-6350.