Valentine’s Day: Why broken hearts are a real thing

Surges of emotion - good or bad - can cause physical symptoms akin to a heart attack.

Surges of emotion - good or bad - can cause physical symptoms akin to a heart attack. Photo: Getty

Pretty flowers and a glittery card. When they were put in your hot little hand this morning, did it feel like you were swelling up inside such that your heart might burst? If that’s true – and not just giddy love talk – you better see a doctor.

On the other hand, if you were neglected and rejected this Valentine’s Day, and felt that a steel hand was squeezing your chest, you may also need medical help.

Funny story. Ecstatic or forlorn, you’ve both got the same thing: broken heart syndrome. It happens when extreme emotional stress – thrilling or devastating – causes one of the heart’s chambers to balloon, triggering symptoms similar to those of a heart attack.

Unlike in a heart attack, however, the arteries don’t close up, the condition is usually reversible, and it very rarely kills you.

Still, for a while there you had a broken heart, just like in the fairytales.

More formally, the condition was named Takotsubo cardiomyopathy by the Japanese, who first described the syndrome in the 1990s. They named it after the vase-like ‘takotsubo’, or octopus trap used by Japanese fishermen, because that’s what the heart looks like when afflicted.

Peter Barlis is Professor of Medicine at Melbourne Medical School and Interventional Cardiologist at St Vincent’s and Northern Hospitals. He told The New Daily that this particular form of cardiac myopathy – which is anything that affects the strength of the heart wall – is brought on by an occasion of intense stress that causes a surge of hormones such as adrenalin and noradrenaline (the fight or flight hormones).

This effectively stuns the heart and causes a ballooning of the left ventricle.

“It’s normally caused by some big event that people are going through,” he said.

The sudden death of a loved one, an unexpected break-up or an earthquake are often cited as causes – and it’s worth reflecting on how the world being torn apart emotionally is on par with physical destruction.

“The stress can vary,” Professor Barlis said. “There have been cases where intense moments of happiness, even winning lotteries and so forth, have brought it on.”

Pink roses

Happy Valentine’s Day! Photo: Getty

And surely a sudden declaration of love from the hottest person in the world is akin to winning the lottery! It can be somewhat of a surprise for doctors trying to diagnose what’s going on with their heartbroken patients.

“The presentation can mimic that of a heart attack,” Professor Barlis said. “A patient’s tracing on an ECG can be quite abnormal. It can mimic a blocked artery. It can be quite debilitating.

“There can be symptoms of chest pain and fluid build-up that causes shortness of breath, and lethargy. It’s the wall of the heart, the apex of the heart that’s affected – you find it loses its strength and is unable to contract.”

Recovery can take several months but the prognosis is generally good.

“With medication we see the heart wall regain its strength and return back to normal,” he said.

Broken heart syndrome is seen more often in females than males.

Professor Barlis said a patient presents in his clinic with the syndrome about every couple of months. A bereavement tends to be the most common cause.

But who knows? Maybe tonight, whilst tucking into lobster and butter sauce, your loved-up partner might clutch at her chest and start breathing heavily. Chances are it’ll be heartburn.

Stay informed, daily
A FREE subscription to The New Daily arrives every morning and evening.
The New Daily is a trusted source of national news and information and is provided free for all Australians. Read our editorial charter.
Copyright © 2024 The New Daily.
All rights reserved.