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The power of love: When heartbreak gets physical

By Linda Weiford, WSU News

Dawn DeWitt
DeWitt

SPOKANE, Wash. – Heartache. Heartsick. More than metaphors from love songs and romance novels, they can also portray a real medical condition.

A growing body of research shows that the proverbial broken heart can be physical as well as emotional, said internal medicine physician Dawn DeWitt, associate dean of clinical education at Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine.

“Love, friendship and connection to others not only make us happy, but make us healthier and even help us live longer. Our hearts are dramatically influenced by our feelings and connections to others. That’s why severe emotional stress, such as the loss of a spouse or a difficult break-up, can be more than a psychological problem. It can also become a physiological problem,” she explained.

Scientific interest in takotsubo cardiomyopathy — nicknamed broken heart syndrome — has increased steadily since it was described in Japan in 1990. Triggered by an intense emotional event, its symptoms mimic a heart attack.

When a patient’s heart “breaks,” the left ventricle weakens, decreasing its ability to pump and producing chest pain and shortness of breath, said DeWitt.

Dawn DeWitt, associate dean of clinical education, on campus at Washington State University Spokane.

“Unlike a heart attack, the patient’s arteries aren’t clogged, they’re clear. Another difference is that the left ventricle takes on a distinctive ballooning shape at its apex,” she said.

This new balloon-like form resembles a Japanese octopus-fishing trap from which the condition gets its name. A takotsubo has a wide bottom with a narrow neck to keep the octopus from escaping.

Doctors believe a surge in stress hormones such as adrenaline “stun” the heart, bringing on rapid and severe weakness of the ventricle muscle and changing its shape. Hence, the heart can’t properly contract.

The condition seems to affect mostly people 50 and older and more women than men, said DeWitt. How often it occurs is not known, since symptoms can range from mild to severe and last from hours to weeks.

Either way, anyone experiencing chest pain and shortness of breath should seek medical care for diagnosis and treatment, she advised.

“In many patients, the symptoms of ‘broken-heart’ syndrome go away after a few weeks. But a smaller number can face serious complications, such as heart failure,” she said.

The valentine in all of this is that broken-heart syndrome, though painful and disorienting, is usually temporary and reversible.

 

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