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What Is Broken Heart Syndrome?

Broken heart syndrome is often mistaken for a heart attack.
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  • Written By: Erin J. Hill
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 10 April 2014
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Broken heart syndrome is a condition which mimics a massive heart attack and one which comes as a result of extreme stress. The death of a loved one or other traumatic event typically sets off the events which lead to broken heart syndrome. It is generally caused by a prolonged spike in adrenaline, the hormone the human body releases during times of extreme stress of perceived danger. This can eventually "stun" the heart, causing symptoms and bodily reactions similar to those which present themselves during an actual heart attack. The main difference between this condition and cardiac arrest are that the symptoms of broken heart syndrome are entirely reversible and do not cause permanent damage.

In many cases broken heart syndrome, which goes by the clinical name of stress cardiomyopathy, is easily mistaken for a heart attack by physicians and other caregivers. Symptoms are typically similar or identical and can include shortness of breath, chest pain, fluid in the lungs, and heart failure. There are many distinct differences, however, which may only become apparent upon closer examination of the patient. Before this is done, stress cardiomyopathy may be treated as a heart attack in order to return the heart to normal rhythms and stabilize the patient.

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Tests which may confirm a diagnosis of broken heart syndrome include an inspection of the heart muscle and the surrounding tissues and arteries. Unlike heart attack victims, those who are suffering from stress cardiomyopathy are typically healthy with no blockages in the arteries or veins and no noticeable disfigurement of the heart muscle itself. Other tests include taking blood samples to check for a lack of enzymes typically released during a heart attack, and magnetic resonance imaging scans which reveal that no muscle damage has occurred as it would with a heart attack. This, combined with a patient background confirming the presence of a traumatic event, can lead to a firm diagnosis.

Fortunately, those who have suffered from broken heart syndrome are almost always able to fully recover with no long-term damage to the heart. Medications may be given to reduce symptoms of stress, and therapy is often offered. This can reduce the patient's production and reaction to stress hormones, thus reducing the risk of repeated episodes.

Stress cardiomyopathy does not cause the same contraction patterns as a heart attack, and should not be confused with a stress-induced heart attack. The effects stress has on the heart and which patients are more at risk for broken heart syndrome remain widely unknown, although it appears as if elderly and middle aged women are the most common victims. Research is being conducted to discover if there is a genetic predisposition to cardiomyopathy, which is one explanation for why some people become afflicted and others do not.

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