Can You Die of a Broken Heart?

You've heard people talking about having a broken heart. You might wonder if it's an actual thing when people married for a long time die within a few days of each other.

Broken heart syndrome is real.  It's triggered by very stressful situations, like the death of someone you love.

Your doctor may call this stress-induced cardiomyopathy. Other things that can trigger it include:

  • Surgery
  • Serious illness
  • Money problems
  • Car accidents
  • Emotional memories

It can even happen after a good shock, like winning the lottery or a surprise party.

What Happens

It’s thought that when you have broken heart syndrome, a part of your heart called the left ventricle temporarily weakens and stops pumping well. Experts also believe that your coronary arteries, which feed oxygen to your heart muscle, spasm. This can cause chest pain. The momentary "freezing" or "stunning" of your heart can bring circulation problems.

If broken heart syndrome is not treated, it can be as deadly as a heart attack.

Symptoms

The most common signs are chest pain and shortness of breath. You may feel like you are having a heart attack. If you feel that way, call 911.  You may also have:

  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Low blood pressure
  • Nausea
  • An irregular heartbeat  

Usually symptoms start anywhere up to a few hours after you've had stress or shock.

Who Gets It

Women are much more likely to have broken heart syndrome than men, especially women who are over 50. This could be a result of lower estrogen levels, but doctors aren't sure.

Experts also believe that genetics may make some people more likely to get broken heart syndrome.

Folks with certain other conditions may have a greater risk of it. They include:

  • A head injury or seizure disorder like epilepsy
  • A psychiatric disorder like anxiety or depression

You're not more likely to get broken heart syndrome if you have a history of heart disease.

Diagnosis

If your doctor thinks you might have it, several tests can help figure things out:

Physical exam and history. Your doctor will examine you and ask about your symptoms. They'll want to know about any major events or stress you've had lately.

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Electrocardiogram (ECG). Your doctor will do one of these to look for any problems with your heart's rhythm and structure. The results will let them know if your symptoms are from a heart attack.

Blood tests. Many of them can show damage to the heart.

Coronary angiogram. This test looks at coronary artery disease. Dye is injected in your chest and your coronary arteries to help your doctor see any blockages. People with heart attacks usually have them. Folks with broken heart symptoms typically don't.

Echocardiogram. This ultrasound shows your doctor if you have an enlarged heart or if your heart has an abnormal shape while it pumps. That last one can be a sign of broken heart syndrome.

Radionuclide perfusion imaging. A similar test to an echocardiogram, this helps show which areas of the heart muscles get blood normally through the coronary arteries. It also lets your doctor know where you could have heart damage.

Chest X-ray. This can show if you have an enlarged heart or if it has an abnormal shape. It can also help to see if lung problems are the cause of your symptoms.

Treatment

Broken heart syndrome is treatable. Your doctor will prescribe medicines used to treat things like heart failure. For example:

  • ACE inhibitors
  • Beta-blockers
  • Diuretics (water pills)

These drugs can help your heart while it recovers.

Recovery

Complications can happen. Still, people who survive the initial stun to the heart typically get better within 4-8 weeks.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on October 16, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

Mayo Clinic: "Broken heart syndrome."

University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics: "Ask an Expert: What is Broken-heart Syndrome?"

American Heart Association: "Is Broken Heart Syndrome Real?"

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Frequently Asked Questions about Broken Heart Syndrome."

Harvard Health: "Takotsubo cardiomyopathy (broken-heart syndrome)."

UpToDate: "Overview of stress radionuclide myocardial perfusion imaging," "Management and prognosis of stress (takotsubo) cardiomyopathy."

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