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Can You Die of a Broken Heart?

Broken heart syndrome may often be confused with symptoms of a heart attack.

The Shape of a Broken Heart

Broken heart syndrome has yet another name: Takotsubo syndrome. 

A tako-tsubo is a pot that's used in Japan for catching sea creatures. When Japanese researchers looked at images of people's hearts during broken heart syndrome, they noted that the left ventricle had taken on an unusual shape resembling the fishing pot.

During an episode of the condition, the heart muscle can be so profoundly affected that it can't pump blood out to the body strongly enough. As a result, the patient may develop heart failure. This can be life-threatening, Wittstein says.

The symptoms are so similar to those of a traditional heart attack that you, a paramedic, and even many ER doctors aren't going to know the difference, Wittstein says. They include:

Because traditional heart attacks can be triggered by stress as well, you shouldn’t take any chances.

"If you're at home having chest pain, you shouldn't question whether this could be stress cardiomyopathy just because you're going through a stressful period. The take-home message is get to the hospital and let the doctors find out which one of these you’re having," Wittstein says.

Diagnosing a Broken Heart

Clues that may help lead your doctor to the right diagnosis are your age and gender. More than 90% of cases reported thus far have been in women.

It's especially common after menopause. Lisa Wysocky was 52 when she had her encounter with broken heart syndrome.

Some research suggests that about 2% of people who seem to be having a heart attack actually have broken heart syndrome. Among women, the number may be higher than 5%, Wittstein tells WebMD.

If you've just gone through grief, stress, or emotional trauma, mention it to your doctor, Wittstein says. Also bring up recent physical stress such as an asthma flare-up or low blood sugar, he says. These can also trigger the problem.

To diagnose broken heart syndrome, doctors usually perform an angiogram. This provides images of the major blood vessels that supply your heart. During a heart attack, one or more arteries are often blocked. But during broken heart syndrome, these blood vessels look OK. 

Your doctor is likely going to want to also perform an echocardiogram. This takes pictures of your heart, which may reveal the tell-tale fishing pot shape.

A Healed Heart

A remarkable aspect of broken heart syndrome is that "someone can be critically ill on a Monday, and by Thursday can literally be preparing to go home," Wittstein says.

Their heart muscle also usually recovers fairly quickly. Neither is often the case after a major heart attack.

Afterward, people may need to take heart medications called beta blockers or ACE inhibitors for a limited time. However, experts don't know if these drugs are necessary for the long term, Wittstein says.

Since her episode, Lisa hasn't had any more heart problems, and she's only taking a low dose of an anti-anxiety drug. These days, she spends her time authoring books, helping people with disabilities ride horses, and leading a foundation in Colby's name. She's grateful that her doctors were able to diagnose her condition as a short-term problem.

"What was so reassuring to me was that the doctor didn't dismiss the symptoms just because I wasn't having a heart attack. He understood my symptoms were real. That was very comforting to me," she says.

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Reviewed on January 24, 2011

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