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Can You Die of a Broken Heart?

We’ve all heard stories of heartbreak. The tragic trope has been romanticized for millennia in songs, books and movies.

But can you really die of a broken heart? We asked OhioHealth interventional cardiologist Kevin Stiver, MD, who gave us a heart-to-heart about a syndrome that lends credence to the tales.

Is heartbreak real?

Stiver says yes. The medical term for broken heart syndrome is takotsubo cardiomyopathy. It can occur after an emotionally stressful or life-changing event, such as the death of a loved one or a financial crisis.

What does broken heart syndrome feel like?

The symptoms of broken heart syndrome mimic those of a heart attack. You may have chest pain that feels like a crushing sensation, shortness of breath, heart rhythm changes, or become sweaty or nauseous.

What does broken heart syndrome do to the heart?

“Broken heart syndrome got the name takotsubo cardiomyopathy because the left ventricle has a very characteristic look to it,” says Stiver. “The left ventricle becomes larger and resembles what the Japanese first described in 1990 as an ‘octopus trap.’ Imagine a full fish net with tight cinching at the top. That’s what the left ventricle looks like. Part of the heart is moving well, but the other part isn’t, so your heart can’t pump blood effectively to the rest of your body.”

How is broken heart syndrome diagnosed?

Stiver says when you come to the emergency department, the first thing your care team will do is an electrocardiogram (EKG). This helps them rule out a heart attack. They may also take you to the catheterization laboratory for a closer look at your heart, so they can give you a definitive diagnosis.

How is broken heart syndrome treated?

“Broken heart syndrome can be treated with medication,” says Stiver. “We don’t have to put in stents or do surgery.” A cardiologist can help you manage blood pressure medication or other prescribed treatments after you leave the hospital, and will monitor your care until your heart goes back to normal.

“The good news is, this particular disease is fully reversible,” says Stiver. “Most people make a full recovery and can live a fulfilled life.”

Are certain people more likely to get broken heart syndrome?

Stiver says the condition is uncommon, but it does appear more often in women, particularly postmenopausal women who are otherwise healthy.

So, can someone really die from a broken heart?

Yes, but it’s rare. Quick treatment can fix broken heart syndrome, even if it can’t fix what triggered it. 

Because broken heart syndrome presents the same as a heart attack, Stiver recommends you seek immediate medical attention when symptoms begin. Call 911 or visit the closest of more than 20 OhioHealth emergency departments.


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