Dying of a broken heart: It actually happens

A broken heart — there are songs about it; poems about it; movies depicting it; and chances are you’ve felt the pain of it at some point in your life. In fact, dying of a broken heart actually is possible.

A broken heart — there are songs about it; poems about it; movies depicting it; and chances are you’ve felt the pain of it at some point in your life. In fact, dying of a broken heart actually is possible.

“Broken heart syndrome is the severe weakening of the heart muscle,” said Janet Smith, M.D., cardiologist at Norton Women’s Heart and Vascular Center. “It affects even the healthiest of people and is brought on by sudden stress.”

Broken heart syndrome, also referred to Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, is the severe weakening of the heart muscle as a result of major physical or emotional stress, such as:

  • Extreme and sudden emotional trauma
    • Death of a loved one
    • Domestic violence
    • Armed robbery
    • Surprise party
  • Severe physical illness
    • Stroke
    • Infection
    • Bleeding
    • Seizure

“Women are more likely than men to experience the sudden, intense chest pain,” Dr. Smith said. “It is a reaction to a surge of stress hormones. The heart becomes stunned and is unable to pump, making part of the muscle work harder than normal.”

The symptoms of broken heart syndrome can include:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Weakness
  • Sense of impending doom

Dr. Smith explains that several of the symptoms are similar to those of a heart attack. So anytime you experience these symptoms, call 911 immediately. Don’t wait to see if they will go away on their own.

“Since the symptoms are so similar, an accurate diagnosis cannot be made until we complete a few tests in the emergency department,” Dr. Smith said. “For example, an EKG records the heart’s electrical activity. An individual who has had a heart attack will have a different outcome than someone suffering from broken heart syndrome.”

The primary indicator of broken heart syndrome is there is no coronary blockage or blood clots.

“Even though there is no blockage or blood clots, broken heart syndrome can still be life-threatening,” Dr. Smith said. “A drop in blood pressure, the body going into shock, as well as the possibility of congestive heart failure or a life-threatening abnormal heart rhythm are all factors with broken heart syndrome.”

The recovery is fairly quick too, according to Dr. Smith.

“Since the heart isn’t damaged, a person will recover quickly and return to normal activity,” she said.

Because broken heart syndrome is the body’s reaction to sudden stress, it’s hard to know who is at risk. However, healthy lifestyle choices can help reduce your risk, according to Dr. Smith. These will improve your overall health and lower your risk for heart disease. Examples include:

  • Exercise regularly to reduce your stress hormone levels
  • Get counseling, either individual or group therapy, for issues you are having trouble coping with
  • Build or rebuild your support network
  • Practice relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation or tai chi
  • Make time for hobbies
  • Volunteer with an organization that interests you

To learn more about women and heart disease, visit http://www.live-norton-healthcare.pantheonsite.io/HeartVein

To schedule an appointment with Dr. Smith or one of the specialists with Norton Women’s Heart and Vascular Center, call (502) 891-8300.


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