Here's the thing I always forget about broken hearts: They hurt. Like, physically. Yes, there's the emotional pain — the sadness and disappointment and fear. But they're often accompanied by real, tangible aches. That comes out in the way we talk about the experience. We describe having a lump in our throats. Being sick to our stomachs. Feeling like there's an elephant on our chests. Even the term itself — "a broken heart" — evokes pain.
Those sensations aren't all in our heads. Losing a loved one or going through a breakup can trigger an actual, medical condition called "broken heart syndrome." It's brought on by emotional stress, including intense grief. Here's everything you need to know about it.
What is broken heart syndrome?
It's a temporary heart condition that can occur after periods of intense grief or other emotionally tumultuous times. Ninety percent of cases are in women between ages 58 and 75, Harvard Health Publishing reports.
Extreme stress can cause the "left ventricle of the heart to balloon out at the bottom while the neck remains narrow," ScienceDaily describes. That hurts. In fact, many people confuse broken heart syndrome (also called Takotsubo syndrome or TTS) with a heart attack because the symptoms — including breathlessness and chest pains — are similar, reports the Cleveland Clinic. But while heart attacks occur when the arteries are blocked by a blood clot from fatty buildup, no such blockage exists during cases of broken heart syndrome.
What causes broken heart syndrome?
As we mentioned, stress seems to play a major role in the onset of the condition. Research suggests that broken heart syndrome can be caused by episodes of severe emotional distress, such as grief, anger, or fear, or reactions to happy, joyful events. Basically, anything that can cause an intense or extreme emotional reaction.
Physical stressors can also be a trigger, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Think: stroke, seizure, asthma, or significant bleeding.
But what is it about stress that affects your heart? To answer that question, researchers scanned the brains of 15 people with TTS and compared it with brain scans of 39 healthy people and published the results in the European Heart Journal.
The findings: Compared to healthy subjects, the "broken hearted" people had less communication between certain areas of the brain. The regions that control how we process emotions "spoke" less to the regions that control the autonomic nervous system (which regulates unconscious responses, like heart rate, breathing, and blinking), described Christian Templin, MD, PhD, the study author, to ScienceDaily.
He goes on to say that because of this communication glitch, when people with TTS are stressed, it could lead more easily to the overstimulation of their autonomic nervous systems — which controls heart contractions and heart rate, among other things. This could "make them more susceptible to developing TTS," Dr. Templin says.
How do you treat broken heart syndrome?
When you have any sort of chest pain or shortness of breath, you should immediately call 911, Sara Sirna, MD, cardiologist at Loyola University Health System told ScienceDaily. These could be signs of TTS, but also could mean you're having a heart attack.
If it is broken heart syndrome, there's no standard treatment, notes Harvard Health Publishing. Your doctor will determine the best course of action based on the severity of the symptoms and other factors like blood pressure. Some options include aspirin, or a more intense course of heart failure medication.
Of course, not everyone who goes through heartbreak will end up with TTS. But consider the possibility additional incentive to take good care of yourself after a breakup — emotionally and physically.