How to Mend a Broken Heart

Oh that’s “heartbreaking” or “my heart is broken” are terms and phrases we often hear surrounding some sort of disappointment or tragic event. But is the heart really broken or is it simply just a figure of speech?

Broken heart syndrome, also called stress-induced cardiomyopathy, is real and while it’s rare, it can be serious. “Broken heart syndrome isn’t very common and we really didn’t even have a name for it until the 1990’s,” says Dr. David Portugal, M.D., interventional cardiologist, affiliated with Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital.

The heartbreak condition was first reported in the Asian population in 1990 and given the name takotsubo cardiomyopathy. “Takotsubo” is the Japanese term for an octopus trap. The trap’s flat-bottomed shape resembles the appearance of the heart’s left ventricle during this condition.

“I may see only one or two instances in a year,” says Dr. Portugal. “But the condition is real and can be lethal in extreme cases.”

What are the symptoms of a broken heart?

Characterized by sudden, intense chest pain, similar to the symptoms of a heart attack, broken heart syndrome is the result of the heart’s reaction to a surge of stress hormones. Often, patients who experience broken heart syndrome have previously been healthy.

The condition might be brought on by the death of a loved one, a divorce, breakup or physical separation. It can also be caused by a shocking experience, like winning the lottery. People who experience broken heart syndrome often experience their symptoms just a few minutes to hours after experiencing an unexpected stress.

“You can’t really tell for certain whether a person is having a heart attack or experiencing broken heart syndrome until you do some testing,” says Dr. Portugal. “An electrocardiogram for a person suffering a heart attack will look very different from one of an individual experiencing broken heart syndrome.”

How does it differ from a heart attack?

Most heart attacks are caused by blockages and blood clots forming in the coronary arteries, which supply the heart with blood. If these clots cut off the blood supply to the heart for a long enough period of time, heart muscle cells can die, leaving the heart with permanent damage. Heart attacks most often occur as a result of coronary heart disease.

How is broken heart syndrome treated?

Most people who experience broken heart syndrome have fairly normal coronary arteries, without severe blockages or clots. The heart cells are “stunned” by a surge of stress hormones but they are not damaged or killed. The “stunning” effects reverse rather quickly and the patient will often fully recover in just a few days or weeks. In most cases, a patient who has experienced broken heart syndrome will have no lasting damage to the heart.

Who is at risk for broken heart syndrome?

Broken heart syndrome victims usually don’t have a previous history of heart disease. What little data is available on the condition suggests it affects primarily women. In addition, it tends to occur most frequently in middle-aged or elderly women though there have been cases reported in younger women and men.

Some of the risk factors for broken heart syndrome are similar to those for a heart attack. “If you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, a family history of heart disease, it’s important to see your doctor annually for a physical,” says Dr. Portugal.

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“Any kind of chest pain needs to be taken seriously so if you are experiencing pain the first thing to do is get to your doctor,” says Dr. Portugal. “No matter the condition, immediate intervention is imperative.”

To learn more about Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute or to schedule an appointment visit:

We wish everyone a very happy, healthy, heartbreak-free Valentine’s Day!