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Learning About Broken Heart Syndrome

A normal heart showing a coronary artery and a normal chamber, and a heart with broken heart syndrome showing a swollen chamber

What is broken heart syndrome?

With broken heart syndrome, the heart has trouble pumping blood normally. A chamber of the heart swells up like a small balloon. Broken heart syndrome is also called takotsubo (say "TACK-uh-zoo-boh") syndrome or stress cardiomyopathy (say "kar-dee-oh-my-AWP-uh-thee").

Broken heart syndrome causes the same symptoms as a heart attack, but it's not a heart attack. Some of the most common symptoms are:

  • Sudden chest pain.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Fainting.

Other symptoms may include:

  • A pounding or fast heartbeat.
  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.

A heart attack is caused by a blockage in one or more of the coronary arteries. These arteries supply the heart muscle with blood. But broken heart syndrome isn't caused by blocked coronary arteries.

Broken heart syndrome is often triggered by great emotional stress, such as grief after losing a loved one. It can also be triggered by physical stress, such as having a serious health problem.

Sometimes it's not known what triggers broken heart syndrome.

How is broken heart syndrome diagnosed?

Because symptoms are the same as a heart attack, you probably had tests to make sure you did not have a heart attack. These tests include:

  • Blood tests, to look for damage to the heart muscle.
  • Imaging tests such as an echocardiogram (ultrasound). These tests can show if a heart chamber has swelled up. They can also show if your heart is pumping normally.
  • An electrocardiogram (EKG), to measure your heart's electrical activity.
  • A cardiac catheterization. Results from the other tests may have looked like you had a heart attack. If so, you probably had a cardiac catheterization. This test lets your doctor look at the coronary arteries that supply blood to your heart. It helps check to see if your coronary arteries are blocked. It also helps check on how well your heart is pumping blood.

How is it treated?

You may be in intensive care for a short time. You may stay in the hospital for a few days. After you leave the hospital, you may have some more tests. These tests are to check how well your heart is pumping blood.

You will likely take medicines for a short time to help your heart muscle recover. These may include medicines that make it easier for your heart to pump blood. Some people may need to take medicines long-term.

What can you expect when you have broken heart syndrome?

In most people, the heart starts pumping normally again within a few days or weeks. For some people, it can take several months to return to normal.

Most people who have an episode of broken heart syndrome don't have another. But there is a small chance that broken heart syndrome can happen again.

Sometimes the condition can lead to more serious problems such as heart failure or heart rhythm problems.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

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