Broken Heart Syndrome On the Rise

Broken heart syndrome may sound like a romantic malady suffered but the lovelorn. But, in reality, it’s a group of symptoms that appear to be a heart attack, which occurs because of physical or emotional stress. During the pandemic, doctors have been seeing much higher rates of the syndrome than in normal times. Usually, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute estimates that about one percent of people experience broken heart syndrome. Now, the numbers have increased four-or-five fold. (

Extreme emotional or physical distress can suddenly weaken the heart. Doctors believe it’s caused by an onslaught of stress hormones. It gained the name because it has been seen in people who are grieving the loss of a loved one. Right now, we’ve lost normality; the worry and stress many people feel during this crazy time take a toll.

One hospital regularly sees the syndrome in 1.5-1.8 percent of their heart patients. Now, they’ve seen it in 7.8 percent of people coming to the hospital with a heart concern. Very occasionally, broken heart syndrome can be fatal. The doctors have not seen heightened levels of mortality. However, the patients suffering from it have had longer-than-usual hospital stays afterward.

While the pandemic continues to evolve, self-care during this difficult time is critical to our heart health, and our overall health,” said Dr. Grant Reed. “For those who feel overwhelmed by stress, it’s important to reach out to your health care provider.”

Unlike a heart attack, nothing is blocking the coronary arteries when the symptoms occur. People have chest pains, shortness of breath and other symptoms. But, there is no physical cause for them. It’s a psychological problem instead of something physically blocking the flow of blood. Even though it’s a mental reaction rather than a physical one, doctors say they present themselves the same way.

The EKG changes look like a heart attack ... the blood test will show that there’s heart attack,” said Dr. Harmony Reynolds.

The higher than usual number of cases doesn’t surprise some doctors. “The fact that stress cardiomyopathy happens with heightened stress is not new,” said Dr. Ankur Kalra of the Cleveland Clinic. He was the lead author on the new report.

However, while it’s not surprising, it is still something we should pay attention to. Dr. Kalra explained, “It is important because it’s an objective barometer of measuring stress in the community. You and I can say that we’re stressed, but how can we objectively measure it? Now you have a condition that you know has a direct causal association and a relationship with stress, has been documented and proven, and there is a body of medical literature that exists around it.”

The good news is that broken heart syndrome usually does not cause permanent damage to the heart, and usually does not reoccur. However, if you feel like you are having a heart attack, regardless of whether you have had heart problems in the past, call your doctor, 911 or go to the hospital. Don’t write it off as merely stress, only a doctor can tell the difference between a broken heart and a heart attack.
July 17, 2020

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