Can emotional heartbreak feel like a heart attack? Kenneth Taylor, M.D., chief of the Advanced Heart Failure Center at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital, says it’s possible. People with broken heart syndrome may see their doctor because they believe they are having a heart attack. However, the pain is not caused by a blockage in the heart – it is the result of severe emotional stress.
Broken heart syndrome symptoms and triggers:
- Symptoms: Chest pain, shortness of breath, weakness and an irregular heartbeat.
- Potential triggers: Abuse, death of a loved one, an upsetting medical diagnosis, financial difficulty, a surprise party, public speaking, a car accident, major surgery or an asthma attack.
Broken heart syndrome was originally known as takotsubo cardiomyopathy, as described by the Japanese in the early 1990s.
“Patients came in with symptoms similar to a heart attack, but did not have the typical blocked arteries that we see with a heart attack,” says Dr. Taylor. “However, their hearts did ‘balloon’ out and look like a big round ball, which was reminiscent of something the Japanese used to catch octopi, which is takotsubo, or ‘octopus pot.’”
Dr. Taylor says broken heart syndrome is more common than people realize.
“It is a syndrome that is seen mostly in post-menopausal women, or women ages 60 and older, who often have some sort of stressful event in their life, whether it’s an emotional or physical stressor,” he says.
Causes of broken heart syndrome
“There is a lot of debate about what actually causes this syndrome and we still don’t really know what causes it. Most people believe it is a ‘stunning’ of the heart from too much adrenaline,” says Dr. Taylor.
In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found that 71 percent of the study’s participants had experienced an emotional or physical stressor just 48 hours earlier. However, the study’s authors noted that it is possible to experience this condition in the absence of a stressful event.
“What researchers found was consistent with what we have seen in previous literature,” says Dr. Taylor.
This includes patient demographics, the absense of heart muscle damage and the fact that most outcomes are positive.
“If you are having symptoms of a heart attack, you need to come to the hospital immediately,” says Dr. Taylor. “If you’re diagnosed with broken heart syndrome, you have a favorable prognosis.”
For information on other heart conditions, visit Piedmont Heart Institute.