The Real Pain Of A Broken Heart

It's called takotsubo cadiomyopathy or broken heart syndrome. Never heard of it? That's because physicians have only just recently begun recognizing this heart condition, which can be caused by a very stressful situation -- either physical or emotional -- such as the death of a loved one. Thus, the nickname "broken heart" syndrome actually has dual meanings. So what are the differences between a "regular" heart attack and broken heart syndrome? And what should you do if you believe you are experiencing broken heart syndrome?

Clogged Arteries Vs. Sudden Stressor

In most cases, a heart attack is the result of blockages created when plaques of cholesterol burst and then form blood clots. These blockages will then restrict the amount of blood flowing to the heart, which then causes the heart muscle to become starved of oxygen. Eventually, the heart muscle cells begin to die, and the end result may be a heart attack. 

In broken heart syndrome, which was first recognized in 1990 in Japan, a patient will typically:

  • Have experienced a very stressful physical or emotional event recently, such as the death of a loved one or having undergone a major surgery
  • Be suffering from chest pains
  • Be experiencing shortness of breath

And if an X-ray is taken of the patient's heart, it will show the left ventricle will have taken on an unusual appearance -- a round bottom with a slim neck. The shape is similar to that of the octopus traps used in Japan, which are called takotsubo, and from which the condition got its name. 

In addition, about 50 percent of patients who are suffering with broken heart syndrome are women who are 50 years or older. 

So Have You Had a Heart Attack or a Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy Attack?

Unfortunately, as you can see, the symptoms for broken heart syndrome and a typical heart attack are very similar. To determine whether you are having a heart attack, broken heart syndrome or some other problem, your doctor will typically perform several tests on you, including:

  • Blood tests. Some tests, such as the cardiac enzyme test, can help a doctor determine whether you have had a heart attack or are in danger of having one. 
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG). This study can show if your heart has taken on the "octopus trap" shape. 
  • Chest X-ray. An x-ray is another way a doctor can see the shape of your left ventricle. 
  • Coronary angiogram. This test will show a doctor if you have any blockages in your blood vessel, which would indicate that you may be having a heart attack rather than experiencing broken heart syndrome.
  • MRI. The doctor may also order this test to determine your heart's pumping capability. 

Immediate Treatment

Because it is so difficult to determine whether or not you are having a heart attack or are suffering with broken heart syndrome, you will usually be treated in the as if you were having heart attack until a firm diagnosis can be made. That means you will most likely be spending some time in the intensive care unit so that doctors can monitor your vital signs. 

Your Doctor Says You Are Suffering From Broken Heart Syndrome. Now What?

Currently, there is no standardized treatment for broken heart syndrome. Once your doctors determine that you are suffering with broken heart syndrome, they will most likely:

  • Prescribe medications, such as beta blockers, to help your heart to recover and to prevent a future attack.
  • Ask you to return for follow-up appointments and for echocardiograms to monitor your heart. 

Fortunately, broken heart syndrome is a temporary condition and, in most cases, your ventricle will return back to its normal shape. In addition, for most patients, broken heart syndrome is a one-time event.