The Dangers of a Broken Heart

May 31, 2006 | Filed Under Diseases 
While the medical condition known as stress cardiomyopathy has been known to exist for long, it is only in recent times that it has been coined as the broken heart syndrome’. It was always suspected that stress can worsen or even result in a heart condition over time, however, the effect of stress on a healthy heart were not known. History is witness to the fact that emotional stress has often triggered a heart attack and that too in people who had no track record of any heart ailments.

The New England Journal of Medicine was the first to break the news in the U.S. Cases have been reported where a person faces a troubling or traumatic situation and experiences symptoms of a heart attack soon after. In reported cases, people had just experienced an event like a home robbery, earning disturbing news about a loved one’s health, an accident, and so forth. Johns Hopkins University doctors used different tests to show how the actual effect of the syndrome on the heart differed from a heart attack.

The attacks that took place in these cases were not mere panic attacks or heart palpitations but triggered a heart failure. The state is similar to that of a heart attack causing chest pain, shortness in breath and fluid fills in the lungs. Such attacks have proved to be fatal hence, confirming that stress can indeed claim a life.

However, with proper care people recover right away without long-term harmful effects. Stress cardiomyopathy is not a traditional heart attack but an unusual heart malfunction that temporarily stuns, not destroys, heart cells. The arteries are not blocked and there are no blood clots or other blockages. Sometimes minimal damage occurs in the heart muscle but everything else returns to normal with treatment.

Recent research suggests that women are more vulnerable to sudden emotional stress effects on the heart than men, perhaps due to hormones. One researcher measured adrenaline levels in 19 otherwise healthy people and found they were several times higher than what is seen in traditional heart attacks. Other stress hormones were found at extremely high levels. It is guessed that the high levels of stress hormones hit the heart and overwhelm it by contracting the heart’s small blood vessels.

This evidence sheds new light on people who are under extreme stress or grieving and suggests the complex interplay of the processes of mind and body. We certainly feel bad all over when our hearts are broken, and now we understand why.

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