red broken heart

Heartbreak. That sinking feeling inside that tears you up and leaves you withered and lonely, like a discarded newspaper kicked to the curb. It’s not a fun feeling. Especially when it occurs around Valentine’s Day, a time of overpriced flowers, heart shaped candies, and love.

But unlike Valentine’s Day, which often feels manufactured, heartbreak is a real, occasionally fatal thing.

Science Says

Takotsubo cardiomyopathy (TC) isn’t easy to say three times fast. It’s also not easy on your heart. Better known as broken heart syndrome, TC revolves around the weakening of the muscular portion of your heart that’s triggered by emotional stress — e.g. a bad break-up. This can lead to cardiac arrest and death.

The disease is named after Japanese octopus traps, which coincidentally are shaped like your heart’s left ventricular apex (when it balloons due to immense stress, anyway).

Despite similar symptoms, broken heart syndrome is nothing like a heart attack.

“Typically, patients will have the same symptoms of a heart attack: chest pain, shortness of breath, and sweating,” says cardiologist Dr. Lawrence Weinstein, medical director of Bethesda Memorial Hospital’s Chest Pain/Heart Failure Center. “The main difference is their arteries are completely clean. There are no blockages.”

sad old woman

Most Common if You’re A…

You were probably guessing: prepubescent teenager who listens to Death Cab for Cutie. But the correct answer is: postmenopausal woman, according to the NIH. Why? “No one really knows,” says Dr. Richard Krasuki, a cardiologist at Cleveland Clinic.

The Good News

“A little over 2 percent of patients who think they are having a heart attack will end up having [broken heart syndrome],” Dr. Weinstein says. In other words, your odds are very low. Better yet: Most who experience broken heart syndrome have a full recovery.

“Patients respond to supportive care and to the same types of medicines we use for patients with weak hearts,” he says. “Within a week, the heart function begins to improve and by six weeks is typically back to normal.”

The Bad News

Even if you aren’t technically suffering from broken heart syndrome, your emotional loss may still kill you. A study published in Circulation found that people — particularly older couples with preexisting heart problems — who are grieving over the death of a loved one are exponentially more likely to die of a heart attack.

And be wary of the winter blues. “We know that the winter holidays increases heart attack risk,“ says Dr. Krasuki. “So it stands to reason that stress is higher on [Valentine’s Day].”

Broken Heart Syndrome 
First Case in the U.S.1998
Probable Causeextreme emotional stress
Symptomssharp chest pain, shortness of breath
Survival Ratehigh
Common Amongpost-menopausal women

The Best Prevention

Dr. Christopher Magovern, a cardiologist at Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey, says your best bet is to avoid stressful events. Though he admits: “This might be impossible to do, because things as common as a vigorous argument, a scary event, a sudden surprise, a financial hardship, or an unexpected loss could all cause the broken heart syndrome.”

If you want to drown your sorrows in a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and vent to your mom for an hour, that could work, too. “Learning to confide in those around you and finding good social supports and outlets in which to ‘vent’ is very important,” says Dr. Krasuki.

But he’s quick to add this disclaimer: “Whether this has any impact in preventing Takotsubo cardiomyopathy is unknown.”

Do

  • Meditate, exercise, or do yoga to manage stress.
  • Talk to your loved ones.
  • Vent to mom, dad, your cat, rabbit, friend, etc.
  • Watch the first few seasons of Friends, before things got sappy.
  • Go out with your single friends.
  • Hug a stranger.
  • Pet a furry animal.

Don’t

  • Watch Schindler’s List.
  • Drink alcohol to mask the pain.
  • Bottle up your emotions.
  • Play third or fifth wheel.
  • Suffocate a furry animal with your tears.
  • Call in sick to school or work because your heart feels broken. Though you may feel awful inside, that plan could actually make matters worse. “Seems to me that being alone at home is not a good solution for anyone experiencing emotional issues,” says Dr. Krasuki. “I think getting out and exercising, getting your mind off of some of your problems is a better solution.”