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More accurately called stress cardiomyopathy, broken heart syndrome is a condition in which intense emotional stress—such as grief, fear, extreme anger or surprise—can cause rapid and severe heart muscle weakness that people often describe as a sudden onset of chest pain, like their heart is physically breaking, or shortness of breath. Stress cardiomyopathy can also occur in certain acute medical conditions such as stroke, seizure, or with significant bleeding.
Cardiologist and director of the heart failure program at Dignity Heath St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center, Anantharam Kalya, MD, says patients with this syndrome can have many of the symptoms of heart attack, such as chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness or fainting.
“These symptoms should always be taken seriously, as they do weaken the heart muscle,” says Dr. Kalya. “Early identification of this condition and institution of appropriate therapy may improve heart muscle function. In rare cases, undiagnosed and untreated stress cardiomyopathy symptoms can lead to life threatening congestive heart failure.”
“Diagnosis is key for proper treatment,” says Mitchell Ross, MD, cardiologist and director of the cardiac cath-lab at St. Joseph's. “With a closer look, there are some major differences between the two conditions. Most people with broken heart syndrome won’t have coronary blockages like we see in heart attack patients, and their blood tests will show no signs of heart damage.”
“Although the syndrome can be life threatening,” Dr. Ross says, “in most stress cardiomyopathy cases, the heart recovers completely within a couple of weeks and causes no permanent damage.”
While stress cardiomyopathy can also occur in young women and even in men, the vast majority of patients seen with this are post-menopausal women (average age about 60). Drs. Ross and Kalya note that the exact reason for this is unknown, and further research is necessary to help explain the phenomenon. — St. Joseph’s
Dr. Kalya and Dr. Ross are available for interviews upon request on Thursday, Feb. 12 and Friday, Feb. 13. Please call 602.406.3312 to schedule.