Broken heart syndrome

What happened to 38-year old Priyanka (name changed) was unusual. After learning that her husband Rahul (name changed) met with an accident, she suddenly started feeling breathless with acute pain in her chest. Thinking that she had suffered a heart attack, her family members moved her to a nearby hospital immediately. It was only after hospitalization that they realised it was not a heart attack. What Priyanka was suffering from was literally broken heart! 

While it may sound like the stuff fiction writers make up, something called the broken heart syndrome (BHS) actually exists. Ending a long-term relationship, suddenly breaking up with someone, being fired from the job or losing a loved one –all are situations that can render you helpless and emotionally weak. In such situations, emotionally you may feel heartbroken, but medically you may actually be suffering from a broken heart (medically known as stress cardiomyopathy or Takotsubo cardiomyopathy). BHS is a temporary heart condition caused under various aggressive emotions like anger, extreme fear, shock, surprise or grief. 

BHS mimics a heart attack

When you go through intense physical or emotional stress, your body releases hormones (adrenaline and noradrenaline) to cope up with increasing stress. Sudden surge of these hormones causes a part of the heart to enlarge temporarily. That’s why people having BHS experience ‘heart-attack-like’ symptoms such as chest pain, breathing difficulty or low blood pressure. About 1 percent of total suspected heart attack cases turn out to be broken heart syndrome. Although the condition imitates a heart attack, there is no evidence showing association between BHS and actual heart diseases. Read more about what happens during a heart attack.

After suffering from BHS you can recover within no time

The main difference between a heart attack and BHS is that heart attacks are mainly caused by blockage in the arteries that supply blood to the heart (coronary arteries), whereas in BHS, no blockage or clot is seen. In cases where blood supply to the heart is cut off for a long period of time, it may result in irreversible heart damage. But, in BHS, even though the patient may suffer severe heart muscle weakness, the heart can completely recover within a few weeks. So, there is no permanent damage as such.

Read more about causes, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of angina.

Can BHS be life-threatening?

Yes. Sudden increase in hormonal levels can cause severe weakness in the heart muscles. Patients can suffer from heart failure due to congestion, sudden drop in blood pressure and abnormalities in heart rhythm that can be life threatening. But with immediate hospitalization, the condition can improve quickly.

Living with day-to-day stress can increase your risk of suffering from BHS

Stress by itself can have several bad effects on your overall health and well being. But, if you experience frequent chest pain or shortness of breath due to stress then it’s possible that you might get BHS at a point of sudden emotional break-down.   

BHS can be prevented by managing stress.

Stress is the root cause of BHS. Handle stress and you will never be left with a broken heart. Here are a few tips that can help you to manage stress. Read how yoga and meditation can help you to manage stress.

  • Take a break: If you find yourself too overloaded with work, take a weekend trip to a peaceful place. De-stress by spending quality time with your family or friends.
  • Express emotions: Don’t go through the pain all alone. Studies suggest that expressing emotions actually helps to reduce stress response. So, whether you failed in your exams or you’re going through a painful separation, share your feeling with people close to your heart.
  • Eat healthy: Starving is not going to solve your problems. Instead, it will make things worse. You body need extra nutrition in difficult times so make sure you eat sufficient, healthy foods. You should particularly stay away from these foods.
  • Sleep well: It’s difficult to get good sleep when your mind is full of doubts and thoughts. But, sleeping well is important for reducing stress. You can try these simple tips to sleep better.

Read more about causes, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of stress.

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