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During the pandemic, this stress-induced heart problem is affecting more people than usual.

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If you’ve experienced heartbreak, you know it can be painful. But did you know intense emotional stress might actually harm your heart muscle?

Following a stressful or shocking event, such as the death of someone you care about, a breakup, a sudden windfall or loss of money, or even being the honoree at a surprise party, some people develop broken heart syndrome. In rare cases, people develop the condition after taking certain drugs, including epinephrine.

Experts believe this heart problem, which causes part of the heart to enlarge and makes it difficult for the heart to pump blood, might be triggered by a sudden release of stress hormones like adrenaline. It occurs even in healthy people and is most common in women and people over age 50.

Fortunately, broken heart syndrome is largely treatable. Here’s what you should know about this temporary heart condition, which is also referred to as stress-induced cardiomyopathy and takotsubo cardiomyopathy.

It has heart attack-like symptoms.

Broken heart syndrome is sometimes confused with a heart attack because the two conditions have the same key symptoms: chest pain and shortness of breath. Additional broken heart syndrome symptoms include:

  • rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • dizziness or fainting
  • low blood pressure
  • cardiogenic shock, which is a medical emergency and means the heart isn’t pumping enough blood

Broken heart syndrome and heart attacks can be deadly if left untreated, so call 911 or go to the ER right away if you’re having symptoms.

Most people fully recover.

Since broken heart syndrome and heart attacks have similar symptoms, it’s common to have a coronary angiogram to check for blocked arteries (which are characteristic of heart attacks but not broken heart syndrome), as well as an EKG and other tests. If there’s no blockage and broken heart syndrome is diagnosed, you won’t need a surgical procedure like you might for a heart attack. Instead, your doctor might prescribe a combination of medications to control your blood pressure, heart rate and stress.

People who receive timely treatment for broken heart syndrome typically avoid lasting heart damage. Most people get better within days or weeks, while it may take a month or longer to recover from a heart attack.

It’s on the rise due to pandemic-related stress.

Broken heart syndrome has become more common during the pandemic, which isn’t surprising since many of us are worried and stressed about our health, the well-being of loved ones, finances and other concerns. One study found that 7.8% of people hospitalized with acute heart symptoms in the early months of the pandemic were diagnosed with broken heart syndrome, compared with fewer than 2% before the pandemic.

Researchers blame the increase on psychological, social and economic stress related to the pandemic. All study participants who were diagnosed with broken heart syndrome tested negative for COVID-19. The study authors suggest that self-care measures like exercising, meditating, and keeping in touch with family and friends may help keep stress under control. Be sure to talk to your doctor if you’re feeling overwhelmed by stress or if you have any symptoms of broken heart syndrome.

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Date Last Reviewed: December 17, 2020

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD

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