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Broken Heart Syndrome: More Than a Movie Plot Twist

July 11, 2019

You’ve seen it in the movies and on TV. A character suddenly learns that his wife has been tragically killed in a car accident. Devastated by this unexpected news, he leans forward in pain, grabbing is chest. You can hear his rapid breathing and his heart beat loudly as his vision blurs. Someone screams, “Call a doctor!” as the screen fades to black. 

By Dr. Will Yancy, Medical Director of the Duke Diet & Fitness Center

While certainly dramatized for the screen, did you know that this is a real medical condition? It’s called Takotsubo cardiomyopathy or Broken Heart Syndrome. Other names for it are acute stress-induced cardiomyopathy and apical ballooning syndrome. The latter name is sometimes used because the heart’s main chamber, the left ventricle, gets larger and changes shape during the condition. In fact, the name Takotsubo comes from the Japanese word for “octopus pot.” The ventricle assumes a similar shape to a traditional Japanese octopus trap, a pot that has a narrow neck and a round bottom.

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It is thought that Broke Heart Syndrome is caused by a surge of stress hormones like adrenaline or cortisol that temporarily constrict the large or small arteries of the heart, depriving it of oxygen. This can cause chest pain, shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat, fainting spells, or other cardiac symptoms. 

If any of these symptoms happen to you or someone you know, call 911 for emergency medical treatment. The condition can occur at any age but is much more common in women than men, and typically occurs after menopause. Some research shows that up to 5% of women being evaluated for a heart attack actually have Takotsubo cardiomyopathy.

Broken Heart Syndrome is often preceded by a profound physical or emotional event, such as:

  • Unexpected death of loved one
  • Frightening experience
  • Domestic abuse
  • Losing or even winning a lot of money
  • Strong arguments
  • Divorce
  • Physical stressors like a car accident or major surgery

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Often, diagnostic test results for the EKG or heart enzyme blood tests, make it appear as if the person is having a heart attack. However, subsequent tests, like the heart angiogram or echocardiogram, will show the change in shape of the left ventricle, which should help doctors to make the correct diagnosis for Broken Heart Syndrome. 

The good news is that the condition is usually temporary, typically resolving spontaneously within one to two months and doesn’t have long-lasting effects. Rarely, the condition can become more permanent, requiring treatment with certain medications commonly used for congestive heart failure. Obviously, treatment for the underlying stress is important as well.

The next time you see someone suffering from Broken Heart Syndrome in the movies or on TV, remember that while the characters and events may not be real, the condition is not as far-fetched as it might seem.

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Building Resilience to Stress

Learn more about how to stay physically and emotionally healthy at The Duke Diet and Fitness Center. Discover sustainable weight loss and successful lifestyle changes with help from psychologists and behavioral clinicians. For more information, call 800-235-3853 or visit www.dukedietandfitness.org

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