What is “broken-heart syndrome?”

This reversible heart condition — which often mimics a heart attack — is being recognized with increasing frequency.

Published: December, 2018

Image: © dolgachov/Getty Images

The term "broken heart" usually conjures up the sad ending of a love affair. In fact, the death of a spouse is a commonly cited trigger for broken-heart syndrome — a temporary weakening of the heart that causes symptoms similar to a heart attack. Also known as stress cardiomyopathy, the condition usually results from severe physical or emotional stress, though sometimes there is no identifiable trigger. Although rare, it's now being recognized much more often than in the past.

"Stress cardiomyopathy was not on anyone's radar screen 25 years ago," says Patrick O'Gara, a cardiologist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital. Japanese doctors who first described the condition in the early 1990s called it takotsubo cardiomyopathy. Why? During an episode, the heart takes on an unusual shape that resembles a tako-tsubo (octopus pot), a traditional clay vessel a fisherman uses to trap an octopus.

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