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The story behind broken heart syndrome

Created date

January 25th, 2010

Can the loss of a loved one actually cause your heart to break? According to experts, extreme emotional stress, whether due to a positive event or a negative one, can in fact lead to a reversible heart weakness known as stress cardiomyopathy, or broken heart syndrome. According to cardiologist Ilan Wittstein, M.D., Among the emotional triggers that first brought broken heart syndrome to our attention: one woman had gotten news that her mother died. Another was the guest of honor at a surprise party. Both, however, were subjected to sudden, unanticipated emotional stress. Wittstein led the Johns Hopkins University study that brought international attention to this poorly recognized syndrome. Although emotional triggers are often associated with broken heart syndrome, physical stressors like seizures and asthma flares have been triggers in 75% of cases studied by Wittstein s team. Other physical stressors associated with this syndrome are major surgery and auto accidents.

Is it a heart attack?

Older women are especially prone to this temporary condition that has many of the same symptoms of a heart attack. In a heart attack, heart cells die, which may lead to permanent heart muscle damage, Wittstein says. By contrast, in broken heart syndrome the cells are only stunned. This stunning can lead to low blood pressure, congestive heart failure, and other problems. Often, people who have broken heart syndrome have been previously healthy and most have a full and quick recovery if treated promptly. Symptoms of broken heart syndrome can mimic those of a heart attack, most commonly chest pain or shortness of breath. If you experience these symptoms, seek emergency medical assistance immediately.

Manage stress to help ' your heart

Although broken heart syndrome is typically the result of a sudden (usually days-long) surge in adrenalin (epinephrine) and other stress hormones, any kind of stress may not be good for your heart. Chronic stress, which is the type that occurs over an extended period of time (months or even years), can increase blood pressure and heart rate, making the heart work harder to produce the blood flow needed for bodily functions. Sources of chronic stress include family problems, financial problems, physical or mental illness, or even loneliness. To manage stress I advise people to rely on their social contacts like family, friends, or clergy, says Elliott Kroger, M.D., medical director at Sedgebrook. ' People who have a solid social network are better able to manage when a crisis occurs. Other ways to better manage chronic stress: Exercise each day. Eat a healthful diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Get plenty of rest. Use relaxation techniques like yoga or massage. Figure out what your typical coping mechanisms are that have worked in the past, Kroger says. Do you like to read? Watch funny movies? Shop? I would recommend any of these to people as long as their method of coping isn t harmful like using alcohol or overeating. Stress that arises from such things as a loss of independence or function is sometimes harder to cope with. While social resources are certainly helpful in these circumstances, sometimes it s best to find alternatives that deal directly with the problem, Kroger says. If your eyesight is failing, for instance, and you love to read, try books on tape. Identifying coping strategies you have used in the past may not necessarily reduce stress, he adds. But it may help you cope better.