Broken heart syndrome affects women more, say docs

Broken heart syndrome affects women more, say docs

The condition has symptoms similar to that of a heart attack including dizziness, shortness of breath, chest pain and even fainting

Break ups are not easy, but what is often more difficult is having to pick up the pieces and moving on. For a few, the pain and stress can lead to an actual broken heart. 

The Broken Heart Syndrome is a condition triggered by emotional or physical discomfort. Also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy, its symptoms are similar to those of a heart attack, such as shortness of breath, dizziness, chest pain, and fainting. “Stress can trigger an intense chemical process which will lead to an increased heart rate,” explains Dr Sreekanth B Shetty, senior consultant and head of interventional cardiology, Sakra World Hospital. 

The heart of a person suffering from the condition is temporarily enlarged, disrupting the pumping of blood. It can also be easily misdiagnosed as a heart attack because blood tests, an ECG and echo would show similar results. However, unlike in a heart attack, the arteries will not be blocked, making an angiogram the only test that can correctly diagnose the syndrome. However, reaching the correct diagnosis is extremely crucial. “Global protocol suggests that someone having a heart attack needs to be in surgery within 90 minutes. On the other hand, there is a huge risk of excessive bleeding associated with putting someone who has clear arteries on medication that is for clogged arteries,” says Dr Nihar Mehta, consultant cardiologist, Jaslok Hospital & Research Center.

Who are at risk?

Loss of a loved one is considered to be one of the major trigger factors. Break-ups, divorce or other issues in a romantic relationship can also cause this issue. However, financial burdens, surgery or treatments for other conditions are also likely triggers. “Being in a hospital or undergoing intensive treatments can take a toll on people emotionally. In these cases, it is the job of the treating doctor to identify the needs of the patient, and help alleviate the stress,” explains Dr Shetty.

While some of the cases happen due to reasons out of one’s control, setting realistic expectations in one’s daily life is important. “We once had a patient who was going to make an outstation trip. Her cab got stuck in traffic while on the way to the railway station. By the time, she got to the station, she was breathless,” shares Dr Shetty.

Women are more likely to suffer from a broken heart syndrome, says Dr Mehta. “It is mostly younger women, but it is a condition that can affect any age group. I have had patients that are in their sixties,” he says. 

While completely reversible, this is a problem that can recur. “One needs to be careful when dealing with future surgeries or treatment, or while dealing with high-pressure situations in the future,” he advises. 

How common is the condition?

Dr Shetty says that he sees up to five to six patients with the broken heart syndrome in a month. The treatment process takes between two days to a week. The procedure involves medications, such a beta blockers, diuretics if there is fluid buildup and monitoring the blood pressure. A few of these cases are more severe, with it leading to cardiac dysfunction. In 15 to 20 per cent cases, the patients may to continue to deal with the after effects for many months.

A few may even end up on the ventilator, and some cases may result in death.

How to deal with a broken heart?

Since this condition is of a rather unpredictable nature, it can be hard to prevent it, says Dr Mehta. “Type A personalities may be more prone to the syndrome, but there is really no way of knowing. Managing stress must be an integral part of one’s daily life,” he says. Being aware of the symptoms, practicing yoga, meditation and following a healthy lifestyle may help prevent this condition. 

The Happy Heart Syndrome

This is a rarer version of this syndrome, where a happy incident leads to the same problem. The emotional changes, regardless of whether they’re positive or negative, will lead to an increased release of adrenaline which causes the condition, says Dr Nihar Mehta

Takotsubo cardiomyopathy

Broken Heart Syndrome was first detected in Japan, where it was termed as the Takotsubo cardiomyopathy. The word ‘takotsubo’ originates from the name for a Japanese octopus trap, as the left ventricle of the heart changes into a similar shape as the trap - developing a narrow neck and a round bottom.  

Love is an addiction

A 2010 study by researchers Lucy Brown found that people who have been been through break-ups may crave for their ex-partners the way an addict craves for drugs. The science is rather simple-- being in a relationships boost our levels of oxytocin, which is also known as the ‘love hormone’.  It also releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward, and serotonin, which helps to regulate our mood and is associated with happiness. A break up, therefore, means a loss in the supply of these chemicals, leading to a neurological withdrawal.

Another study by cognitive neuroscientists at Columbia University, used fMRI scans to look at brain activity in unmarried people who had experienced an unwanted breakup in the previous six months. Participants looked at pictures of their ex-partners while thinking about shared experiences. The researchers compared the scans to when participants looked at pictures of a friend, or when they were exposed to pain via a hot probe on the arm. The research concluded that physical pain and memories of lost loves triggered similar brain activity.