What Is Broken Heart Syndrome?   

What Is Broken Heart Syndrome?

A broken heart; a drawing of a heart on a cracked wall.

August 16, 2022

Clinical Contributors to this story:
Matthew Saybolt, M.D.

Shortly after the death of actress Carrie Fisher it was reported that her mother, actress Debbie Reynolds, had died from a “broken heart.”

Broken heart syndrome is generally a temporary heart condition that results from extreme emotional distress. “‘Broken heart syndrome,’ or takotsubo cardiomyopathy, weakens the heart due to an unusual and abrupt shape change in the left ventricle causing the heart to weaken,” says Jersey Shore University Medical Center’s Medical Director of the Structural Heart Disease Program, Matthew Saybolt, M.D., FACC. “While the exact cause isn’t known, extreme emotion or physical stress is the usual cause, and it can develop at any age and can even happen to people without any previous heart issues.” 

What Causes Broken Heart Syndrome?

The exact cause of broken heart syndrome is unknown, but it usually occurs in conjunction with an extremely stressful event such as:

  • The death of a loved one
  • Abuse
  • Natural disasters
  • Major financial loss
  • Diagnosis of a serious illness

“Researchers speculate several causes, one being that during times of extreme emotional distress, stress hormones such as epinephrine are released and cause blood vessels to spasm, leading to ventricle malfunction,” Dr. Saybolt says. “When the left ventricle balloons, the heart cannot effectively pump blood to the body.” 

While broken heart syndrome typically resolves with appropriate medical therapy, it can be serious. About 20 percent of people who experience broken heart syndrome develop congestive heart failure.

What Are the Signs of Broken Heart Syndrome?

The symptoms of broken heart syndrome tend to mimic those of a heart attack:

  • Intense chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations

    In order to properly diagnose, doctors need to perform a series of tests to rule out other heart conditions.

What’s the Difference Between Broken Heart Syndrome and Heart Attack?

Despite the differences between broken heart syndrome and heart attack, they share some overlapping features. Thus, making the correct diagnosis can be an emergency.

In broken heart syndrome:

  • Symptoms may occur suddenly after extreme emotional or physical stress.
  • EKG can be abnormal and look similar to a heart attack.
  • Blood tests can show damage to the heart, mimicking a heart attack.
  • Tests show no blockages in coronary arteries.
  • Imaging tests show ballooning or a misshaped left ventricle.
  • Recovery time is much shorter than a heart attack.

While generally broken heart syndrome is rare—only about one to two percent of cases where blood flow to the heart is reduced is diagnosed as such—it is possible to have a cardiac event due to extreme emotional distress. 

But Dr. Saybolt warns: “Stress can have huge effects on all aspects of your health and should not be ignored, especially if it’s causing physical symptoms. Never disregard chest pain, heart palpitations or shortness of breath.”

Next Steps & Resources:



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