Is broken heart syndrome real? According to scientists, yes.

Broken Heart SyndromeCC: Matthew Henry at Unsplash

Most people will suffer from heartbreak at some stage. To those who have experienced it, it’s seen as the same as bereavement. This makes sense, as you are grieving a loss after all. According to recent research, broken heart syndrome is real. With scientists confirming it exists, is it time to stop belittling those who struggle to recover from heartbreak?

What is broken heart syndrome?

People who suffer from broken heart syndrome often experience specific symptoms. This includes feeling breathless and mild chest pain. It’s easy to attribute these symptoms to conditions such as panic attacks as they’re very similar. But there’s also a physiological explanation for their existence.

Now, it’s important to note that broken heart syndrome doesn’t just arise when a relationship falls apart. It can occur due to acute stress, job changes, and even a happy event such as your marriage. As all these events are startlingly different, why does this condition occur?

Well, it has less to do with romantic heartbreak and more to do with the patient’s heart structure. Those who experience the rare condition have a Takotsubo-shaped left ventricle (that’s a type of Japanese pot) while the heartbreak is occurring. The left ventricle is the heart chamber that’s responsible for sending blood around the rest of the body. When it adopts the Takotsubo shape, it’s no longer functioning as it should.

What’s happening when someone’s heart ‘breaks’?

When the patient’s left ventricle adopts the pot-like shape it’s due to a temporary change in the muscle surrounding it. This leaves them with less pumping power, resulting in cardiomyopathy. Cardiomyopathies are conditions where the heart struggles to pump blood to the rest of the body. Usually, they’re inherited conditions, but there’s no genetic link with broken heart syndrome.

Although some patients recover in a matter of days, others take months. Around 10 to 15% will experience a recurrence of broken heart syndrome. Usually, this happens when they experience another stressful or exciting event.

Because the left ventricle temporarily fails to function, patients often require support. Depending on the extent of the damage they experienced, they may also need assistance with recovery afterward.

What did the broken heart syndrome research reveal?

Dr. Jelena Ghadri at the University of Zurich analyzed the brain scans of 15 patients with broken heart syndrome. While that number is small, it’s worth knowing that the condition is incredibly rare.

Upon analyzing the scans, Dr. Ghadri found that there was reduced communication between the areas that control emotions and automatic functions, including the patients’ heartbeats. These brain areas represented the ones that become active when people experience stress. As a result, the researchers believe broken heart syndrome may arise due to differences in brain communication.

At present, this study acts as an excellent building block for predicting when this cardiomyopathy will occur. With further work, it may also reveal more about other forms of cardiomyopathy and the risk factors that leave people vulnerable to them.

About the Author

Laura McKeever
Laura has been a freelance medical writer for eight years. With a BSc in Medical Sciences and an MSc in Physician Assistant Studies, she complements her passion for medical news with real-life experiences. Laura’s most significant experience included writing for international pharmaceutical brands, including GSK.