You’ve watched this scene in the movies: A person learns of the unexpected death of a loved one and suddenly clutches his or her chest, apparently suffering a heart attack. While Hollywood uses scenes like this for dramatic purposes, some cardiologists believe this reaction is a proven medical condition. In fact, extreme emotional stress triggering rapid and severe heart muscle weakness, called cardiomyopathy, may occur more often than many people and doctors realize.
No. Most heart attacks occur when blood clots and blockages form in the coronary arteries, cutting off blood flow to the heart. Heart tissue begins to die, resulting in permanent damage. With stress cardiomyopathy, also called broken-heart syndrome, intense and sudden stress triggers a hormone response that “stuns” the heart into heart failure in which the muscle contracts weakly and cannot pump enough blood. Because the syndrome is a newly recognized one, experts are only beginning to understand and recognize it.
Symptoms appear within minutes or hours of the stress and mimic a heart attack and include chest pain, shortness of breath, low blood pressure and congestive heart failure, but tests show no severe coronary blockages or cardiac enzymes that indicate a heart attack has occurred. Stress cardiomyopathy will produce a distinctive pattern on an electrocardiogram (EKG), and an echocardiogram will show the heart’s main pumping chamber, the left ventricle, is enlarged and not contracting normally. This condition can be life-threatening, especially if a patient goes into shock or suffers a serious arrhythmia. Damage to the heart, however, appears to be temporary and reversible, and most people regain normal heart function within a couple weeks.
Stress refers to your body’s response to something it perceives as abnormal. It can be from something physical such as an injury, an asthma attack, a stroke or a seizure, or from something emotional such as grief, fear, anger or surprise. When you experience an acute stressor, your body produces a surge of hormones and proteins such as adrenalin and noradrenaline, designed to help you cope with the stress. When in danger, these hormones can help you flee. With stress cardiomyopathy, experts believe massive amounts of these hormones may overwhelm the heart, stunning it into dysfunction.
Stress cardiomyopathy tends to happen most often in middle-aged or elderly women, most of whom had no previous history of heart disease. Many patients might have been misdiagnosed with a heart attack when they actually suffered a toxic adrenalin surge. Despite what may be causing the symptoms, the situation requires medical attention. Anytime you or someone around you suffers symptoms of chest pain or difficulty breathing, call for emergency medical help.