Broken heart syndrome is a heart condition that's often brought on by stressful situations and extreme emotions. The condition also can be triggered by a serious physical illness or surgery. Broken heart syndrome is usually temporary. But some people may continue to feel unwell after the heart is healed.
People with broken heart syndrome may have sudden chest pain or think they're having a heart attack. Broken heart syndrome affects just part of the heart. It briefly interrupts the way the heart pumps blood. The rest of the heart continues to work as usual. Sometimes the heart contracts more forcefully.
Medicines are used to treat symptoms of broken heart syndrome.
Broken heart syndrome also may be called:
- Stress cardiomyopathy.
- Takotsubo cardiomyopathy.
- Recurrent takotsubo cardiomyopathy.
- Apical ballooning syndrome.
Symptoms of broken heart syndrome can mimic those of a heart attack. Symptoms may include:
- Chest pain.
- Shortness of breath.
When to see a doctor
Any continued chest pain could be due to a heart attack. Call 911 or your local emergency number if you have new or unexplained chest pain. Also call if you have a very rapid or irregular heartbeat or shortness of breath.
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The exact cause of broken heart syndrome is unclear. It's thought that a surge of stress hormones, such as adrenaline, might damage the hearts of some people for a short time. How these hormones might hurt the heart or whether something else is the cause isn't completely clear.
A temporary squeezing of the large or small arteries of the heart may play a role in the development of broken heart syndrome. People who have broken heart syndrome also may have a change in the structure of the heart muscle.
An intense physical or emotional event often comes before broken heart syndrome. Anything that causes a strong emotional reaction may trigger the condition. Examples include:
- Sudden illness such as an asthma attack or COVID-19.
- Major surgery.
- Sudden broken bone.
- Death of a loved one or other loss.
- Strong argument.
Rarely, use of certain medicines or illegal drugs may lead to broken heart syndrome. They include:
- Emergency medicines used to treat severe allergic reactions or severe asthma attacks.
- Some medicines used to treat anxiety.
- Medicines used to treat a stuffy nose.
- Illegal stimulant drugs, such as methamphetamine and cocaine.
Always tell your healthcare team about the medicines you take, including those bought without a prescription. When starting a new medicine, talk to your care team about the potential risks and side effects.
How is broken heart syndrome different from a heart attack?
Heart attack is generally caused by a complete or near-complete blockage of a heart artery. In broken heart syndrome, the heart arteries are not blocked. But blood flow in the arteries of the heart may be reduced.
Risk factors for broken heart syndrome include:
- Sex. Broken heart syndrome is more common in women than in men.
- Age. Most people who have broken heart syndrome are older than 50.
- Mental health conditions. People who have had or have anxiety or depression may have a higher risk of broken heart syndrome.
Most people who have broken heart syndrome quickly recover and usually don't have long-lasting effects. But sometimes the condition comes back. This is called recurrent takotsubo cardiomyopathy.
Rarely, broken heart syndrome can cause death.
Complications of broken heart syndrome include:
- Backup of fluid into the lungs, called pulmonary edema.
- Low blood pressure.
- Irregular heartbeats, called arrhythmias.
- Heart failure.
- Blood clots in the heart.
To prevent another episode of broken heart syndrome, many healthcare professionals recommend long-term treatment with beta blockers or similar medicines. These medicines block the potentially harmful effects of stress hormones on the heart.
Having chronic stress may increase the risk of broken heart syndrome. Taking steps to manage emotional stress can improve heart health and may help prevent broken heart syndrome. Some ways to reduce and manage stress include:
- Get more exercise.
- Practice mindfulness.
- Connect with others in support groups.
Nov. 11, 2023