When Sarah Jenkins ended a five-year relationship with her fiancÚ, she wondered if her heart would recover. "I've had my share of heartbreaks," the 32-year-old Hernando County resident said with a smirk. "But this one was different. I felt the pain deep in my chest. I thought I might be having a heart attack."
Jenkins had no previous symptoms of heart problems, and a visit to her physician showed no abnormal activity. And with time, her physical and emotional pain healed. Yet during the darkest days following the break-up, she wondered if it was possible to die from a broken heart.
When we think of a broken heart, we might think first of the emotional aftermath of a failed or broken relationship, as in Jenkins' case, that "heals" with time. Yet broken heart syndrome is a real physical ailment suffered by many people after a dramatic episode causes an influx of stress hormones to the heart muscle.
Broken heart syndrome can be fatal.
Any life-altering event, such as the sudden death of a loved one, loss of a pet or a traumatic episode such as a fire or life-threatening health diagnosis, can trigger a dangerous cardiac shock.
Broken heart syndrome, also called stress-induced cardiomyopathy or takotsubo cardiomyopathy, is a condition suffered by healthy individuals with no precursor or evidence of heart disease, according to the American Heart Association. Yet it can be dangerous if left untreated. It also can lead to future heart problems or even death.
Broken heart syndrome is a sudden, intense chest pain that is the reaction to a surge of hormones caused by an emotionally stressful event, the Heart Association reports. It can happen after a break-up or divorce, physical separation, or death of a loved one. It even can happen as a result of a good shock, such as winning the lottery.
During an episode, the heart temporarily enlarges and fails to pump effectively. Yet the rest of the heart muscle functions normally and sometimes with even more force during contractions.
Broken heart syndrome might be misdiagnosed as a heart attack because the symptoms and test results are similar. Dramatic changes occur in the rhythm and blood substances of both a heart attack and broken heart syndrome. But unlike a heart attack, broken heart syndrome shows no evidence of blocked arteries.
Symptoms associated with broken heart syndrome might include:
??Angina (chest pain)
??Shortness of breath
??Arrhythmia (irregular heartbeats)
??Cardiogenic shock, where a weakened heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the body's needs. It can be deadly. Cardiogenic shock is the most common cause of death during a heart attack.
Although many of the symptoms might mimic a heart attack, there are distinct differences between the two conditions. For instance, symptoms of broken heart syndrome occur suddenly after extreme emotional or physical stress.
The following also occurs with broken heart syndrome - yet differ from heart attack symptoms:
??EKG results for broken heart syndrome look different than results from a heart attack;
??Blood tests show no signs of heart disease;
??No blockages occur in the coronary arteries;
??Ballooning or unusual movement may occur in the left ventricle (left heart valve);
??Recovery time is quicker, within a few days or weeks, compared to a month or more with a heart attack.
Broken heart syndrome can lead to death or, at the very least, future heart problems if left untreated. If your doctor suspects broken heart syndrome, you likely will be encouraged to undergo any of the following tests:
??Coronary angiography - a test that uses dye along with a special X-ray to "see" inside coronary arteries;
??EKG (echocardiography) - a test that uses sound waves to create moving pictures of the heart;
Broken heart syndrome can be dangerous because it involves severe muscle weakness and can lead to cognitive heart failure, low blood pressure, shock and potentially life-threatening heart rhythm abnormalities, according to the Johns Hopkins Medicine website.
Understanding how the heart muscle can be weakened during a sudden influx of stress hormones is important to understanding how broken heart syndrome can lead to death. The body reacts to stress - or responds to things that are abnormal - by producing various hormones and proteins like adrenaline and noradrenaline that are meant to help cope.
With broken heart syndrome, it is believed the heart muscle is overwhelmed with a massive amount of adrenaline. It still is unknown how the body reacts. It might narrow the arteries that supply blood flow or bind the heart cells directly, which would cause large amounts of calcium to enter the cells and cause temporary dysfunction.
What is known is that assuming the symptoms will go away might lead to worse health problems or death. For this reason it is important for those who experience a traumatic event to keep a close eye on symptoms. If something doesn't feel right, seek a professional opinion immediately.
Jenkins eventually moved on from her break-up and is happily married today. "I was lucky that my symptoms weren't life-threatening," she said. "But I learned how bad it could have been."
For more information about broken heart syndrome, visit the American Heart Association's website at www .heart.org.