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Doctors Report Increase in “Broken Heart Syndrome”

Every so often, we read a poignant news story about a couple, married for years, who pass away only a few days apart. “His wife died from a stroke, and he died of a broken heart,” the story might go.

Though that is just a saying, there actually is something to it, report cardiologists. According to The European Society of Cardiology (ESC), a condition called “broken heart syndrome” most commonly occurs when a person experiences severe emotional distress after a sad or stressful event, such as the loss of a loved one.

The ESC says the symptoms of broken heart syndrome resemble those of a heart attack. They describe it as “a sudden temporary weakening of the heart muscles that causes the left ventricle of the heart to balloon out at the bottom while the neck remains narrow.” The condition is also referred to as stress cardiomyopathy—and when it was first described by doctors in Japan, they called it “takotsubo syndrome,” because the shape of the heart resembles a Japanese octopus trap—“tako” for octopus, “tsubo” for trap.

According to the American College of Cardiology, “Episodes are thought to be driven by the sympathetic response and surges of adrenaline in the body, similar to the well-known fight-or-flight reaction.” They note that broken heart syndrome also can be brought on not only by grief, but by an emergency situation, and they’ve found that cases rise in an area that has experienced a natural disaster.

The Broken Heart Syndrome and Coronavirus

We can safely say that our nation is in the midst of a natural disaster right now during the coronavirus pandemic. So it’s not surprising that in July 2020, experts from the Cleveland Clinic reported an increase in cases of broken heart syndrome.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about multiple levels of stress in people’s lives across the country and world. People are not only worried about themselves or their families becoming ill, they are dealing with economic and emotional issues, societal problems and potential loneliness and isolation,” reported Dr. Ankur Kalra, a Cleveland Clinic cardiologist who led the study. “The stress can have physical effects on our bodies and our hearts, as evidenced by the increasing diagnoses of stress cardiomyopathy we are experiencing.”

Dr. Kalra’s study, which was published in JAMA Network Open, found a significant increase in diagnoses of broken heart syndrome among patients who reported heart-related symptoms (7.8% of these patients, compared to only 1.7% before the pandemic). It’s important to note that none of these patients tested positive for COVID-19—their problem was not caused by the virus, but by stress.

While most patients completely recover from broken heart syndrome, it’s important to seek medical help right away to ensure the correct diagnosis and appropriate treatment. Symptoms include chest pain, irregular heartbeat, breathlessness, fainting and low blood pressure.

Doctors want us to know that while some patients these days are hesitating to seek help for symptoms of heart problems, medical professionals and hospitals are ready and able to see patients, and are taking precautions to protect them from exposure to the coronavirus.

“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, senior author of the study. “For those who feel overwhelmed by stress, it’s important to reach out to your healthcare provider. Exercise, meditation and connecting with family and friends, while maintaining physical distance and safety measures, can also help relieve anxiety.”

Source: Information from the American College of Cardiology, the European Society of Cardiology and the Cleveland Clinic

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