Lisa Wysocky was having a bad week even before she landed in the emergency room one afternoon in July 2009.
The previous day she had learned that her adult son, Colby, had died of an overdose after struggling with mental illness. She then spent the night on her bedroom floor with pain that she suspected was from a heart attack. But she was too numb with grief to seek help immediately.
In every issue of WebMD the Magazine, we ask experts to answer readers' questions about a wide range of topics, including some of the most cherished medical myths out there. For our June 2012 issue, we asked a New York-based cardiologist about chest pain and heart attacks.
Once the Nashville, Tenn., resident went to the hospital, doctors began running tests. They told Lisa that instead of a heart attack, she actually had a different type of heart problem called stress cardiomyopathy. This problem -- which is also dubbed "broken heart syndrome" -- may be the real issue in some cases that initially appear to be a heart attack.
Understanding broken heart syndrome requires understanding how the body reacts to stress -- and a bit of knowledge about Japanese octopus-fishing gear.
A Troubled Mind May Lead to a Broken Heart
The term "broken heart syndrome" came about after researchers noticed that many people with the condition were grieving, says Ilan Wittstein, MD, a Johns Hopkins University cardiologist who's been studying the condition for a decade.
"The first several patients we saw, many of them had [just experienced] the death of a loved one, a spouse, a parent. Some people started having symptoms at a funeral," he tells WebMD.
But other patients had just gone through a trauma like a car accident or a mugging. Another woman landed in the intensive care unit on her 60th birthday after being startled by well-wishers shouting "Surprise!" Wittstein says.
These types of events can trigger your sympathetic nervous system, which is also called your "fight or flight" mechanism, says Peter Shapiro, MD, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University who studies emotional issues in heart disease.
Your body unleashes a flood of chemicals, including adrenaline, he says. This sudden flood can stun your heart muscle, leaving it unable to pump properly.
So even though broken heart syndrome may feel like a heart attack, it's a very different problem that needs a different type of treatment.