On Valentine's Day, people who have been unlucky in love are sometimes said to suffering from a "broken heart."
It turns out that a broken heart is an actual medical condition. Broken heart syndrome occurs during highly stressful or emotional times, such as a painful breakup, the death of a spouse, the loss of a job or extreme anger, said Loyola University Health System cardiologist Dr. Binh An P. Phan.
Broken heart syndrome also is called stress cardiomyopathy. Symptoms are similar to those of a heart attack, including chest pain and difficulty breathing. The good news is that, over time, the symptoms go away. And unlike heart attack patients, people with broken heart syndrome do not suffer lasting damage to their hearts, Phan said.
"Most people will get better in a few weeks without medical treatment," Phan said.
During an extremely stressful event, the heart can be overwhelmed with a surge of adrenalin and other stress hormones. This can cause a narrowing of the arteries that supply blood to the heart. It's similar to what happens during a heart attack, when a blood clot in a coronary artery restricts blood supply to heart muscle. But unlike a heart attack, broken heart syndrome is reversible, Phan said.
But it's difficult to distinguish between broken heart syndrome and a heart attack, Phan said. Thus, if you experience symptoms such as chest pain and difficulty breathing, don't assume you're having broken heart syndrome -- call 911.
Phan is director of Loyola's new Preventive Cardiology and Lipid Program, which helps prevent heart attacks and other cardiac-related disorders and provides advanced treatment of cholesterol disorders.
Phan has received advanced fellowship training in cardiology and is a board-certified lipidologist. His special interests include lipidology (the study of cholesterol), preventive cardiology and noninvasive atherosclerosis imaging.