• By Rick Thiesse

It’s true: Your heart can break from stress

February 24, 2022
heart shape icons on electronic background with broken red heart in middle

LA CROSSE, Wis. ― For some, February can be a happy time, spent with a friend, partner or loved one. For others, the month may be emotionally stressful. Mayo Clinic Health System cardiologists say this emotional stress ― whether it's brought on by grief, anger or personal health issues ― can be so bad that it feels like their heart is breaking. And in a way, it is.

The condition is broken heart syndrome, also known as takotsubo or stress-induced cardiomyopathy. It affects just part of the heart, temporarily disrupting its usual pumping function. The rest of the heart continues to work properly or may even squeeze, or contract, more forcefully.

"Emotional stress can increase the level of stress hormones, such as cortisol, which play a major role in stress-induced heart failure, although it's not known exactly why or how," says Nkechinyere Ijioma, M.B.B.S., a cardiologist at Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse and Tomah, Wisconsin. "This condition occurs more commonly in women after menopause. However, it also affects young women, as well as men. People with anxiety or depression also are at higher risk."

Heart disease remains the No. 1 killer for men and women, so people of all ages should take it seriously.

"Broken heart syndrome mimics a heart attack. And like a heart attack, chest pain is the most common symptom," says Niti Aggarwal, M.D., a cardiologist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato, Minnesota and at the Women's Heart Clinic at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. "Other symptoms include shortness of breath, loss of consciousness or fainting, and rapid or irregular heartbeats, or palpitations."

With treatment, broken heart syndrome usually reverses itself in days or weeks.

"Treatment can require special heart medicines. With these medications, the heart muscle usually recovers quickly without permanent damage. However, broken heart syndrome can recur after another stressful event," adds Dr. Aggarwal.

Usually, people with broken heart syndrome don't have coronary artery disease or blocked heart arteries. A health care professional will evaluate the cause and determine appropriate care.

"Heart medications may be needed to prevent another episode," says Dr. Ijioma. "It's also important to manage emotional stress and know your numbers for blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol. If you experience persistent chest pain, don't wait until it's too late. Call 911."

Other ways to address stress include:

  • Increasing physical activity.
  • Taking part in relaxation exercises.
  • Practicing mindfulness meditation, spirituality and religion.
  • Seeking professional help from a mental health worker or psychiatrist.
  • Making dietary changes.
  • Reducing alcohol use.
  • Stopping smoking.
  • Monitoring your heart health.

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About Mayo Clinic Health System

Mayo Clinic Health System has physical presence in 44 communities and consists of 53 clinics, 16 hospitals and other facilities that serve the health care needs of people in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The community-based providers, paired with the resources and expertise of Mayo Clinic, enable patients in the region to receive highest-quality physical and virtual health care close to home.

Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse was the only health care facility in Southwest Wisconsin in 2021 that received the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid's 5-Star Quality Rating and Leapfrog Grade A for Safety, and was named in Healthgrades America's "250 Best Hospitals" and Newsweek's "Best Hospitals in the U.S."

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