Ask the Expert: What is Broken Heart Syndrome?

Having a broken heart is a real and potentially dangerous medical condition.

Clouds photo via shutterstock

Clouds photo via shutterstock

Many of us are so lost this week we don’t even know what day it is. But having a heavy heart can also be bad for your health. So we asked an expert: How dangerous is “broken heart syndrome”?

The answer comes from C. Michael Gibson, M.D., cardiologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and a professor at Harvard Medical School. He is also the founder of which is an open source textbook of medicine. Here is his answer:

Broken heart syndrome is also known as stress cardiomyopathy and it is a very real and potentially dangerous medical condition. About two thirds of cases are triggered by emotional stress such as the death of a loved one, a sudden illness, earthquakes, or other disasters like the bombings at the Boston Marathon.

The brain is very connected to the heart through a wide variety of nerves, and these nerve endings that reach the heart can sometimes release very high levels of the fight or flight hormone adrenaline. These high levels of adrenaline can cause either death of the heart muscle or temporary stunning of the heart muscle. When one looks at the pumping motion of the heart, one can see that the front wall of the heart muscle may balloon outward rather than contracting inward and this gives rise to the name “apical ballooning syndrome”.

Broken heart syndrome can be complicated by shock or potentially fatal heart rhythms. Treatment includes regular heart attack medications such as aspirin, other blood thinners and medicines to slowly relax the heart called beta blockers, and medicines to make it easier to pump blood forward called angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors. The in-hospital mortality rate is low at 1 to 2 percent and long-term survival is generally good.

Broken Heart Syndrome by the numbers:

6,229: Estimated number of discharges for the syndrome in 2007. (5,558 were women; 671 were men)

7.5: Number of times more likely a woman is to have it than a man.

6: Percentage of women who are admitted to the hospital for a heart attack but actually have this syndrome.

1: Percentage of cases that result in death.

Sources for “By the Numbers”: American Heart Association, Harvard Health Publications, and Psych Central.