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A Broken Heart Can Hurt More Than You Think

woman consoling her female friend as she cries on the couch

Marietta Ambrose, MD, consultative cardiologist who practices at the Penn Heart & Vascular Center in the Ruth and Raymond Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine, discusses broken heart syndrome.

Whether it’s losing a loved one, or putting a family pet to rest, a “broken heart” hurts. But there may be more truth to the phrase than was intended. That’s because serious medical repercussions can occur after any highly stressful situation. Dr. Ambrose answers questions about what it means to have a “broken heart.”

Q. What is broken heart syndrome?

A. Broken heart syndrome, officially called stress cardiomyopathy or takotsubo syndrome, is a rare disease in which the heart function becomes abnormally low. It can happen during extremely stressful moments, extreme emotional reactions to particular events in a person's life or significant illness. This syndrome seems to occur more often in postmenopausal women and can occur even in those without any history of heart disease. Symptoms can be severe and are caused by short-term heart muscle failure.

Q. What are the signs and symptoms?

A. This varies but includes severe chest pain, new onset of unusual and unexplained breathlessness, marked swelling of the feet and sudden unexplained weight gain following extremely stressful events. Arrhythmias can also occur.

Q. How long does it last?

A. This is variable but it is usually temporary. With the proper medical attention, it usually resolves within days or weeks, but sometimes it takes months.

Q. Can it be prevented?

A. We currently do not know of a way to medically prevent this very rare disease.

Q. Can it be treated?

A. Yes, it can be treated, and the majority of patients do well with medical attention and heart function usually is fully recovered over time.

We are still learning more about this disease. It also mimics more common heart conditions like a heart attack, though they are not the same. The important takeaway is to seek medical attention if you develop the symptoms listed above so you can be evaluated.

Facts about broken heart syndrome:

  • About 90% of the cases are seen in women vs. 10% in men.
  • About 1% of all heart attacks are caused by “broken heart syndrome.”
  • The risk for women older than 55 developing the syndrome is nearly three times that of women younger than 55.

About this Blog

The Penn Heart and Vascular blog provides the latest information on heart disease prevention, nutrition and breakthroughs in cardiovascular care.

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