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You may not die from a broken heart, but you can become every sick. Broken heart syndrome is an actual cardiac condition, which mimics symptoms of a heart attack.

The metaphor, broken heart, usually refers to intense emotional suffering. Whether it is caused by the death of a loved one or the breakup of a significant relationship, a broken heart can be emotionally painful. But can a broken heart lead to actual problems with the heart? The answer may be surprising.

Is Broken Heart Syndrome a Real Medical Condition?

Broken heart syndrome, which is also called stress cardiomyopathy, is a medical condition, which is caused by intense emotional stressors, such as fear, surprise and grief. As a reaction to the emotional stress, the heart becomes enlarged and weak. In some instances, physical stressors, such as a flare-up of asthma or seizures, can also bring on the condition. 

Although anyone can develop the condition, it appears to occur primarily in middle-aged and elderly females.

The reason females are more at risk for broken heart syndrome is still being researched.

The symptoms of broken heart syndrome are often very similar to a heart attack.

In fact, it can be difficult to distinguish between the two by symptoms alone. For instance, chest pain, which also occurs in a heart attack, occurs with broken heart syndrome. Additional symptoms include shortness of breath and low blood pressure. Congestive heart failure symptoms may follow, such as fluid in the lungs, swelling and weakness. Symptoms of broken heart syndrome often start a few minutes to a few hours after the emotional stressor. 

Because the heart does become weak, the condition can become serious. Symptoms of congestive heart failure may become severe. In addition, heart arrhythmias can develop, which can be life-threatening. The good news is the condition is almost always temporary and does not cause permanent damage to the heart.  

Theories on Why Broken Heart Syndrome Develops 

Everyone has stress in the lives on occasion, and people handle stress differently. Some people have a more intense reaction to stress than others. When the body feels stress, there is a natural reaction. Hormones and proteins are released into the bloodstream including adrenaline and noradrenaline. This release of hormones serves an important function.

For example, consider being under a physical attack. Your body reacts to the stress and fear by releasing adrenaline. Adrenaline heightens alertness and can help you move faster. In the case of an attack, adrenaline helps you defend yourself. But even if the stressor is not dangerous, the body still reacts by releasing adrenaline.

Although the exact reason the condition occurs is not fully understood, there are a few different theories on the cause.

One theory is the sudden surge of adrenaline temporarily damages the heart.

Adrenaline can narrow the arteries, which may cause a reduction in blood flow to the heart.

Another theory is the chemical adrenaline binds to the cells in the heart. The binding of adrenaline to the cells causes an increase of calcium to enter the cells. The increased calcium may cause dysfunction of the heart leading to symptoms of the syndrome. 

Regardless of which physiological response is responsible for the condition, it is almost always temporary. Depending on the severity of symptoms and whether symptoms of congestive heart failure develop, various types of treatment may be recommended. Most patients respond to treatment and within a few days to a week their symptoms improve.

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