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What is broken heart syndrome?

Takutsubo cardiomyopathy, also known as broken heart syndrome, is a temporary heart condition that can be brought on from extreme emotional or physical stress.


© Getty Images/iStockphoto iStock-1200080248.jpg

The condition was first described in 1990 in Japan and the word “takutsubo” comes from the name of a pot used by Japanese fisherman to trap octopuses.

It occurs when your heart’s left ventricle, which is the main blood-pumping chamber, changes shape and becomes larger, weakening the heart muscle and affecting its ability to pump blood.

When this happens, the left ventricle develops a narrow neck and a round bottom, which makes it resemble the octopus trap.

Research shows that broken heart syndrome affects more women than men, with more than 90 per cent of reported cases appearing in women between the ages of 58 to 75.

According to Harvard Medical School, studies suggest that up to five per cent of women suspected of having a heart attack actually experience takutsubo cardiomyopathy.

Stressors associated with the condition can include the loss of a loved one, a serious accident, a natural disaster like an earthquake, or a sudden illness.

Scientists believe that in times of severe distress, stress hormones like adrenaline can surge and “stun” the heart, which results in changes in heart muscle cells or coronary blood vessels, or both.

These changes restrict the left ventricle of the heart from contracting effectively, which stops it from pumping blood as well as it should.

However, symptoms of takutsubo cardiomyopathy are nearly indistinguishable from a heart attack, which misleads people into thinking they are suffering from the latter instead of the former condition.

Main symptoms include a sudden, intense chest pain and shortness of breath. According to the British Heart Foundation, some people may also experience other symptoms such as heart palpitations, feeling sick or being sick.

The condition is diagnosed if medical tests rule out a heart attack and non-heart-related problems, and if your left ventricle has changed shape, causing your heart muscle to appear weakened or unable to pump blood properly.

Tests can include an electrocardiogram (ECG), a blood test, an echocardiogram, a cardiac magnetic resonance imagine (MRI) scan, or an angiogram.

Takutsubo cardiomyopathy is usually a temporary condition and reverses itself to normal within a few weeks. Doctors may prefer to keep patients in hospital until they begin to recover.

However, the Mayo Clinic says that broken heart syndrome can cause death in rare cases. Others have speculated that having a broken heart after the loss of a loved one or receiving bad news can contribute to a person’s death.

One famous example is Hollywood icon Debbie Reynolds, who died in 2016 at the age of 84.

She suffered from a fatal stroke just one day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher, died from a heart attack.

Before she passed, Reynolds told her son Todd Fisher that she wanted “to be with Carrie”.

It was widely reported in 2003 that heartbreak also played a part in the death of music legend Johnny Cash.

Cash died four months after his wife, June Carter, passed away due to complications from heart surgery in May 2003.

Although Cash died from complications with diabetes, the couple were married for 35 years and he said following her death that the “pain of her being gone is more than I can stand”.

Reference: Independent: Kate Ng

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