For the ones who just experienced a painful break up, Valentine’s Day will be all about the ‘broken heart’. Did you know that a broken heart is an actual medical condition? The pain can be so intense, that some people even die soon after they had suddenly lost a loved one.
“The broken heart syndrome occurs during highly stressful or emotional times, such as a painful breakup, the death of a spouse, the loss of a job or extreme anger”, explains Loyola University Health System cardiologist Dr. Binh An P. Phan.
The broken heart syndrome, also called stress or Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, is a rare phenomenon, triggered by a rush of overwhelming emotions and stress, resulting in a sudden, massive release of adrenaline. As a consequence, the bottom half of the main pumping chamber of the heart gets paralyzed, while the upper half of the chamber has to work much harder to compensate.
“To a cardiologist, a heart attack means a blocked coronary artery, but in this condition we find the coronary arteries are open and the blood supply is fine. We then look at the pumping chamber and it’s paralysed, plus it’s taken on a unique and abnormal shape; it looks like a Japanese fisherman’s octopus pot, called Takotsubo, hence its name”, explains Dr Alexander Lyon, consultant cardiologist at the Royal Brompton hospital. He works together with researchers of the Imperial College to develop a better understanding of the broken heart syndrome.
For doctors it is difficult to recognize a broken heart syndrome, as many of the typical symptoms indicate a standard heart attack. Therefore, it could be that many patients are misdiagnosed. Current figures suggest that in the UK about 2% of the 300,000 “heart attacks” each year will in fact be broken heart syndrome. Interestingly, most of the diagnosed broken heart cases are in women. According to Lyon, men do also suffer from the condition, but are more likely to collapse and die before reaching any medical attention. “Our current hypothesis is that men drop down dead if they have a big stress, whereas women recover,” he says.
Although it seems that the broken heart syndrome is less damaging than a heart attack, the condition can be fatal. So dying of a “broken heart” is really possible. Guilty of causing fatal damage? Don’t hesitate to send out a nice Valentines card!
Photo: Gabriella Camerotti / Flickr