Recognising broken heart syndrome

Sarah Wiedersehn
(Australian Associated Press)


Intense emotional stress caused by a break up, the death of a loved one or even workplace bullying can “stun” the heart and cause temporary heart failure.

Known as broken heart syndrome, it feels like having a heart attack and is a real “medical emergency” that Australians should be aware of, says Professor Vaughan Macefield of the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute.

“So people have chest pain, pain radiating down their left arm, breathlessness and so they go to hospital and it turns out that their heart has this dysfunction which leads it to change its shape,” Prof Macefield explained.

The research shows the condition, also known as takotsubo cardiomyopathy, is triggered by emotional stress and it occurs more often in post-menopausal women, although the underlying mechanism that causes is still unknown, Prof Macefield says.

“Basically the intense emotional stress leads to an increase in nerve activity to the heart. This intense barrage of nervous activity stuns the heart and it ceases functioning normally and then you get all these signs of heart failure,” he said.

While broken heart syndrome is a temporary condition, research has shown it can have long-term effects, Prof Macefield warned.

“Some recent evidence suggests that individuals often readmit to hospital and they have long lasting signs of disturbed cardiac function.

“People do need to be aware that stress is a very real problem that has very real cardiac consequences,” he said.

To understand why stress causes some people to develop the syndrome but not others, Prof Vaughan – a neurophysiologist – will launch a study that will investigate a link between the brain and the heart.

“There is some psychological evidence that people who suffer from this are more introspective, may have greater anxiety and that this will increase the likelihood of stress leading to these cardiac problems,” Prof Macefield told AAP.

For the research, brain imaging will be used to identify any subtle differences in brain structure that may underlie these psychological differences found in these individuals.

“It’s too early to tell what differences there are but I think we are going to uncover some very interesting features,” Prof Macefield said.


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