Health & Medicine

Broken-heart syndrome more likely to affect women, those with head injuries

Samy-Claude Elayi
Samy-Claude Elayi

The sudden loss of a job, a divorce, or the death of a loved one or even a family pet cause us to experience overwhelming emotions. The term “broken-hearted” is often used to describe these reactions, but it’s rarely thought of as life-threatening.

However, broken-heart syndrome is a real diagnosis, also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy. The condition is fairly new to researchers, but the recent deaths of actresses Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, only one day apart has shed new light on the heart condition.

Broken-heart syndrome is a disruption of the heart’s normal pumping process that leads to heart muscle failure. The condition is thought to be triggered by a surge of hormones.

This surge can be caused by stressful events, such as an unexpected death of a loved one, news of a serious medical diagnosis, domestic abuse, losing or winning a large amount of money, loss of a job or even a divorce.

The most common symptoms include chest pains and shortness of breath. These symptoms are similar those of a heart attack, and the two are difficult to tell apart based solely on symptoms.

A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart is cut off due to clogged coronary arteries. However, unlike a heart attack, broken-heart syndrome is not related to clogged arteries. Instead, part of the heart temporarily enlarges and is not able to pump efficiently, putting more strain on the other parts of the heart.

To determine what is causing the chest pain and shortness of breath, doctors may order a chest X-ray, electrocardiogram, blood test, coronary angiogram or magnetic resonance imaging. Once the chest X-ray and MRI verify the condition of the arteries, the doctor will likely ask if you have experienced any recent stressful events or life occurrences.

Women and individuals with head injuries or seizure disorders are more likely to be affected by broken-heart syndrome. There is no clear reason why, as research is still ongoing. Other risk factors include sexual activity, neurological conditions and psychiatric disorders.

Treatment for the condition is similar to that of patients experiencing a heart attack. Patients are kept in the hospital during recovery and are prescribed angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors or diuretics that reduce the workload of the heart.

Broken-heart syndrome is rarely fatal, and patients typically recover within a month. There are no long-lasting effects, and reoccurrence is possible but highly unlikely. However, if you’ve experienced a traumatic event and have noticed any of these symptoms, check with your doctor immediately.

Dr. Samy-Claude Elayi is a cardiologist with the University of Kentucky Gill Heart Institute.