We know breakups hurt (like, a lot), but we didn’t think they could actually kill you. As it turns out, an especially brutal heartache (along with a pre-existing condition or two) might just knock the air, and life, right out of you.
Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or “broken heart syndrome” as it’s known colloquially, is a rare heart condition that mimics the symptoms of a heart attack. Patients experience a crushing chest pain and shortness of breath that is anything but imagined – their heart is actually under extreme duress, and in an unusual shape.
The condition was first depicted in medical literature in Japan in 1990. The Japanese name “takotsubo” refers to a vase-shaped pot that is used as an octopus trap. In the trap, the octopus goes through a narrow section of the vase and into a balloon-shaped holding section, where it expands and becomes stuck. In broken heart syndrome, the bottom of the heart temporarily expands into a shape that resembles the traps, hence the naming.
People most often suffer from broken heart syndrome after an especially painful breakup or following the death of a loved one. The reaction is probably triggered by sudden extreme stress, flooding the body with stress-related hormones like adrenaline and weakening the heart tissue. For an unknown reason (although it’s been suggested as linked to estrogen), postmenopausal white women are affected most often, as well as people who suffer from depression or anxiety. Deaths have been reported, but in patients who had already suffered some other physical trauma, like a stroke. Although the condition is extremely rare, one doctor estimates that 2% of heart attacks are actually broken heart syndrome. In postmenopausal women, he thinks the number could be as high as 7%.
Unlike actual heart attacks, broken heart syndrome doesn’t usually leave behind any permanent damage since it isn’t related to obstruction of the coronary arteries, but is rather a matter of temporarily stunned heart tissue. Broken hearts tend to heal with time and leave no permanent scars – at least on the physical heart, that is. We can’t speak to the emotional trauma, although we like to believe time heals all wounds.