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Broken Heart Syndrome: When Intense Stress Feels Like a Heart Attack

Sudden high levels of stress can take a toll on your heart. Sometimes, events like the death of a loved one, domestic abuse, intense arguments, severe illness, receiving terrible news or experiencing devastating financial losses can trigger what’s called broken heart syndrome.

“We have all heard people talk about having a ‘broken heart’ or being ‘heartbroken,’ but for some people, it’s literally a real thing. Fortunately, it is rarely fatal, and most people fully recover without any long-term issues,” said Brian Henry, MD, a Banner Health cardiologist with CardioVascular Institute of North Colorado.

The medical term for broken heart syndrome is a heart condition called stress-induced cardiomyopathy, and it’s relatively new as a recognized disorder, first described in 1990. If it strikes, you can feel like you’re having a heart attack. You might experience severe chest pain or shortness of breath, or you may pass out.

“Broken heart syndrome is often triggered by a stressful event causing intense physical or emotional stress,” Dr. Henry said. And despite the name, it’s not always grief or sadness that causes broken heart syndrome. Dr. Henry has seen it in:

  • A woman who was startled in her building’s basement by a maintenance man she had known for years
  • A diehard hockey fan who was overcome with emotion when her favorite team lost a dramatic double-overtime playoff game
  • A woman who walked into her house and found a surprise 60th birthday party had been planned in her honor

You’re at higher risk of broken heart syndrome if you’re female—90% of cases are diagnosed in women, Dr. Henry said. And as you get older, your risk also increases. On average, people are diagnosed with broken heart syndrome at age 66.

Serious illness can also cause broken heart syndrome. Dr. Henry has seen cases in people with severe COVID-19 infection, for example. But chronic, persistent stress, like living through the pandemic, isn’t typically linked with broken heart syndrome.

How can doctors diagnose broken heart syndrome?

The symptoms of broken heart syndrome can look like a heart attack. With broken heart syndrome, an echocardiogram may show that the heart’s left ventricle is not working correctly, but the base of the heart is functioning normally. But even EKG and echocardiogram results can look similar in heart attacks and broken heart syndrome.

So, doctors will usually perform another test called a cardiac catheterization to look for signs of heart disease or blocked coronary arteries to rule out a heart attack. If they aren’t present, the diagnosis is likely broken heart syndrome.

How can doctors treat broken heart syndrome?

If you have broken heart syndrome, you might not need treatment since your heart will recover on its own most of the time. But in most cases, a cardiologist will recommend medications such as beta-blockers, ACE inhibitors or angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs) to help protect your heart.

The bottom line

Intense emotional or physical stress can trigger broken heart syndrome, which can look and feel like a heart attack. Fortunately, broken heart syndrome is usually temporary, and people with broken heart syndrome are likely to fully recover if they develop it.

Visit your health care provider or a cardiologist near you if you have concerns about your heart health. You can also take our free Heart Age Test to learn more.

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