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'Broken Heart Syndrome' Mimics Heart Attack

Stress Hormones May Stun Heart After Bad News or Surprises
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Feb. 9, 2005 - Suffering from a "broken heart" may actually be a real medical phenomenon that mimics a heart attack but may be much less dangerous, according to a new study.

Researchers say the potentially lethal effects of emotional stress are well known in folk wisdom, as demonstrated by the phrases "scared to death" and "broken heart." But new evidence shows that broken heart syndrome may be an actual medical condition brought on by a surge of stress-related hormones that temporarily "stun" the heart.

The study suggests that people who have broken heart syndrome may often be misdiagnosed as having had a heart attack when they've actually experienced something else called stress cardiomyopathy, which doesn't cause permanent damage to the heart.

Researchers say some people may react to sudden, extreme emotional stress by releasing large doses of stress hormones and other chemicals into the bloodstream. These chemicals can be temporarily toxic to the heart and stun the muscle, producing symptoms similar to a heart attack, like chest pain, fluid in the lungs, and shortness of breath.

"After observing several cases of 'broken heart' syndrome at Hopkins hospitals -- most of them in middle-aged or elderly women -- we realized that these patients had clinical features quite different from typical cases of heart attack, and that something very different was happening," says researcher Ilan Wittstein, MD, assistant professor at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in a news release. "These cases were, initially, difficult to explain because most of the patients were previously healthy and had few risk factors for heart disease."

The results of the study appear in the Feb. 10 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.

In the study, researchers evaluated 19 people who were admitted to the hospital after suffering chest pain or symptoms of heart failure after experiencing emotional stress. Eighteen of the 19 patients were women and their average age was 63.

All of the participants had evidence of what was an apparent heart attack after sudden emotional stress, including news of a death, shock from a surprise party, fear of public speaking, armed robbery, a court appearance, or a car accident.

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