Feb 25, 2013
Had “Romeo and Juliet” been written by a cardiologist, Juliet’s life probably would have ended with a heart attack instead of a bloody dagger. Every year, nearly a million Americans rush to the emergency room with symptoms of a heart attack — but about 2 percent of these patients suffer from a different problem entirely: a broken heart. Broken heart syndrome, also known as stress cardiomyopathy, bears strong resemblance to a heart attack. Symptoms include chest pain, irregular heartbeat, and shortness of breath.
Yet whereas a heart attack is the culmination of many years of dietary wear and tear on the arteries, broken heart syndrome is caused by a flood of emotion. An extreme life stressor – the unexpected death of a loved one, a car accident, a traumatic break-up — releases a surge of adrenaline and other stress hormones. This revs the heart into overdrive, which can harm the heart cells, causing the body to sends signals to slow the heart down. In rare cases, this defense response goes haywire and causes the heart muscle to weaken suddenly; as a result, a large section of the heart bulges and can no longer pump blood efficiently.
Luckily, broken heart syndrome is much easier to recover from than a heart attack is. Heart attacks kill heart cells, which are starved of oxygen-rich blood when a clot blocks an artery; recovery takes months, and patients usually need to make major improvements in their diet and exercise regime, and many will need to start taking medication. Broken heart syndrome, on the other hand, is less likely to be fatal and does not result in permanent heart damage. Broken heart syndrome often occurs in perfectly healthy patients, who can recover fully in a matter of days.
So while it’s rare, beware: unrequited love can actually break your heart.