Broken Heart Syndrome

POSTED: Monday, November 2, 2009 - 8:17am

UPDATED: Thursday, June 3, 2010 - 10:59pm

A few years ago, Jim and Priscilla Russell had the scare of a lifetime. "She had no history of heart problems," said Jim.

Jim had a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital. Then in the emergency room, something happened to Priscilla. "So I went outdoors with my friend, and I no sooner went outdoors than I passed out right on the cement out there," said Priscilla. It seemed she was having a heart attack, too. "My fainting or heart attack was precipitated by the stress that he caused earlier in the evening," she said.

But maybe it was just a broken heart. Doctors now know that sudden emotional stress can cause severe, but reversible, heart muscle weakness ... which mimics a classic heart attack. they call it: broken heart syndrome.

"The difference is when these people are taken to the cath lab the arteries are normal and so with a typical heart attack in the cath lab you expect to find an artery with a blood clot with no flow, and in these people the flow is perfectly fine," said Dr. Timothy Hadden, a cardiologist. People with broken heart syndrome usually have an intensely stressful physical or emotional event right before having heart-attack like symptoms.

The patients are usually older women ... perhaps their house burns down or a loved one dies. Or like Nancy Eller, they experience a frightening medical diagnosis. "They were sure I had a heart attack because all the symptoms and all the tests showed that they enzymes and whatever," said Eller. "Then I got up there and no blockage."

Eller temporarily lost vision in one eye. A few days later, she went to the hospital with chest pains. "I said I think I'm having a heart attack. I was hurting so bad," she said. She finds the broken heart diagnosis amusing. "I thought that's an old tale, you know."

Broken heart syndrome is rarely fatal ... but doctors say it must still be treated quickly. "Despite the fact that it's not a heart attack, then people are still critically ill within that first few days," said Dr. Hadden. Dr. Hadden says broken heart syndrome is probably more common than we know. The broken heart syndrome diagnosis could increase as more physicians learn to recognize its unique clinical features.