How to Protect Your Heart, Even If It’s Broken

By on May 12, 2016

By Vanessa Sheets –

Have you ever experienced emotional grief so painful, it felt like your heart was breaking? It turns out that broken heart syndrome is a real thing- and 90 percent of those affected are women.

“I’ll never forget a case I had whose child nearly drowned in a pool and the mother ended up in the hospital with what she thought was a heart attack,” says Dr. Lawrence Vallario, a cardiologist with The Cardiovascular Center P.A. at the Central Florida Regional Hospital. “But when we ran laboratory tests, we found her arteries were clean. She had a ballooning heart, known as broken heart syndrome.”

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First identified in Japan over 25 years ago, broken heart syndrome (BHS) is a temporary condition that can cause chest pain and shortness of breath, both evidence of congestive heart failure. Brought on by intense emotional grief or a tragic event, BHS occurs due to a surge in stress hormones. Instead of picturing a heart with a jagged line through it, think of a weakened heart muscle with a significant decrease in heart pump function.

“I cared for a woman with acute chest pain, but again, lab tests found that her arteries were clean,” Dr. Vallario says. “This happened right around the anniversary of her husband’s death the previous year.”

Any emotionally stressful event can cause BHS, also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy or tako-tsubo cardiomyopathy. Losing a spouse, parent, or another loved one can cause a surge in stress hormones that suddenly weaken the heart. Dr. Vallario has even treated patients for BHS who were going through a terrible divorce. “The significance of a stressful event in developing BHS is paramount,” he says.

It’s Not a Heart Attack

Though BHS symptoms are scarily similar to those of a heart attack, the heart muscle is weakened temporarily, while a heart attack damages the heart irreversibly. If left untreated, BHS could lead to congenital heart failure, but typically patients recover within a week or two without lasting damage.

“With BHS, you’re developing a measurable, observable problem with the heart muscle. Typically, you’d see this associated with a blocked artery, but in this case, we go in and find the arteries are clean,” says Dr. Vallario. “So we know it’s not related to blocked arteries.”

BHS also isn’t related to an acute virus, which can sometimes attack the heart.

With medical support, including medication, patients can usually expect a full recovery and restored heart pump function.

What Women Can Do

BHS is more likely to strike women than men, though we don’t know why it occurs in some women going through emotionally stressful events and not others. Women who are experiencing a tragic life event can take these steps to reduce their risk of developing BHS:

Seek support. “It can be very helpful to openly discuss your tragedy with other family members and close friends, and get professional counseling when appropriate,” Dr. Vallario says.

Get medical help. If you’re experiencing a shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat, or chest pain, see a doctor who can recommend testing for BHS and treatment for a full recovery.

Reduce stress. Try breathing techniques like inhaling to the count of ten and slowly exhaling until all the air is pushed out. Harvard researchers found that breath control can help keep anxiety from escalating when you’re panicked and possibly reduce stress hormones from flooding your system.

Dr. Vallario points out that BHS is not a panic attack, though some symptoms like rapid breathing, perspiration, and a shortness of breath can occur with both. With a panic attack, the patient isn’t developing a structural abnormality like they are temporarily with BHS.

If you’re unsure as to whether your symptoms are a panic attack or could be related to BHS, notice if you’re able to calm down using breathing and self-care techniques. If you’re not, or you’re experiencing any chest pain, don’t hesitate to call 911 for help.


Vanessa Sheets is a health journalist and content writer for print and online magazines and businesses. Check out her website at

About Vanessa Sheets

Vanessa Sheets is a freelance journalist who specializes in fitness, health, and nutrition. She has written for True North, Natural Child, Newport Health, and Greenmaple Wellness and worked in public health as a community educator for a non-profit. She lives in Bend, Oregon.

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How to Protect Your Heart, Even If It’s Broken