Emotional trauma linked to deadly heart condition

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — While most hearts are swelling these days in anticipation of Valentine’s Day, others are breaking. Literally. 

News 8 spoke with Dr. Kyle Frick, cardiologist at IU Health, about a condition that’s on the rise during the pandemic. It’s what doctors call broken heart syndrome and it results from loneliness, excessive stress and emotional instability.

Gillis: We are talking about broken heart syndrome. I know this time of year hearts should be swelling with Valentine’s Day just around the corner. But some people’s hearts are breaking. First tell us what broken heart syndrome is, who is most likely to get it and why is it happening at this time?

Frick: Broken heart syndrome is actually known by a few names. It could be stress cardiomyopathy or takotsubo cardiomyopathy. And basically it presents very similarly to a heart attack. People get chest pain, shortness of breath and it’s actually a result of the stress hormone’s effect on the heart muscle. So, it can cause reduced heart function and even heart failure. 

It is more common in women and people with mental health diseases such as anxiety and depression. So, certainly right now with a lot of stressors going on we’ve seen increased cases. 

Gillis: And how many people does it affect? Well, I would just be guessing that the number is up considering the emotional stress we’ve been enduring at this time. How would you compare the statistics today from previous years?

Frick: Historically, stress cardiomyopathy or broken heart syndrome affects about 1 to 2 of all people who come into the emergency room with signs and symptoms of a heart attack. But here during the COVID-19 pandemic with all the psychological, social and economic stressors we’ve seen a four-fold increase. So, it’s affecting about 7-8% of people who come in presenting heart attack symptoms. 

Gillis: Are you seeing a lot of people at IU Health with this condition? 

Frick: Certainly. It’s all over the world and certainly in Indiana…we’re taking care of a few patients right now. 

Gillis: Experts all around are saying you have to take care of your emotional health, but it’s not that easy right now. It’s been very difficult for so many people. So, we don’t want to get to this place where we have this condition…this broken heart syndrome. So, first how do you prevent it? What are the signs and symptoms and then how do you treat it?

Frick: As far as prevention goes I think you have to take care of the whole you and that not only means the heart by ways of exercising and eating right. But that also means your emotional well-being. That means taking some time for yourself. Doing things you enjoy and really taking care of the whole you.

And the presenting symptoms–as we discussed–are very similar to a heart attack. In fact, when you show up to the ER EKG (electrocardiogram) are indistinguishable from a heart attack in most cases. So, the thing to do if you are feeling chest pain or shortness of breath–particularly if this is a new thing for you–you need to call your provider and get to the emergency room to seek care. 

Fortunately, any compromised heart function can be reduced and will improve over time–days, weeks and months. But it is possible for folks to get very sick with this. In fact, sometimes we see folks with this with very low blood pressure and need a shock from this. 

And the care is predominantly supportive care and then once symptoms start improving we typically add on a medication like a beta blocker, which basically can help protect the heart and alleviate those stress hormones that attack the heart and can help improve your heart function. 

Gillis: Well, that’s really interesting that you say that because emotional support plays such a huge role in this. And you cut out for a second. Did you say this could be transient or permanent?

Frick: This is almost always transient. It would be rare for someone not to recover their heart function from this and it would be rare that somebody would die from stress cardiomyopathy or broken heart syndrome. Though it is possible. 

Gillis: Dr. Frick. Last thirty seconds. You have the floor. 

Frick: I’d say listen to your body. If you don’t feel well talk to your provider and this broken heart syndrome really shows there is a connection between our heart health and our overall mental and emotional well-being. So, just take care of the whole you. 

News 8’s medical reporter, Dr. Mary Elizabeth Gillis, D.Ed., is a classically trained medical physiologist and biobehavioral research scientist. She has been a health, medical and science reporter for over 5 years. Her work has been featured in national media outlets. You can follow her on Facebook @DrMaryGillis.