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Broken Heart - a Literary Metaphor or Reality?

Whenever you read one of those classic love stories set in the age of knights and medieval glory, you wonder with a certain amount of scepticism why it was so natural for the authors to portray their characters dying of broken hearts. Be it a more graceful way to depict death, or merely a trait of renaissance literature, death of a broken heart is, in fact, possible.

Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, also known as broken heart syndrome, is a condition that, in spite of having all the outward makings of a heart attack and most frequently manifesting itself in chest pain, very fast heartbeat and shortness of breath, is caused solely by a person’s emotional condition. As a result of either extreme grief, ensuing after the death of a loved one, a divorce, or even a romantic rejection, or extreme happiness and surprise, akin to what you feel on winning the lottery, one of the chambers of the heart may enlarge, rendering it incapable of proper functioning.

Broken heart syndrome may be and, in fact, most often is mistaken for a heart attack. After all, it does lead to severe, albeit short-term, heart muscle failure and significant changes in the heart rhythms. During further testing, however, doctors can identify that what has happened was not a heart attack. Blood tests do not show any traces of heart tissue damage or artery blockage, and EKG results are different from what is typically seen in case of a heart attack.

"Whenever you read one of those classic love stories set in the age of knights and medieval glory, you wonder with a certain amount of scepticism why it was so natural for the authors to portray their characters dying of broken hearts. Be it a more graceful way to depict death, or merely a trait of renaissance literature, death of a broken heart is, in fact, possible."

Another fortunate difference from a heart attack is that the recovery from a broken heart does not take anywhere near as long, usually being limited to several weeks for full recovery as opposed to months needed after a heart attack. The treatment is predominantly supportive and is limited to medications that are meant to reduce the load on the heart during its recovery. It is also reassuring that in the majority of cases no complications follow. Still, it is important to be aware of this syndrome because it may cause complete heart failure and be fatal if not tended to immediately.

There are certain risk factors that are associated with a higher likelihood of developing broken heart syndrome. First, quite unsurprisingly, women are more often struck by this condition, being more prone to acute emotional reactions. In fact, 90% of all cases happen to women. Older age (above 50) plays a role as well, with less than 3% of occasions registered in patients younger than 50. Age is, after all, a very common prerequisite for heart disease. Another risk category are people with a history of neurological or psychiatric conditions. With all that in mind, it is, however, worth noting that broken heart syndrome is a rare condition that affects from 2% to 3% of people in the western world. This is to say that it is still highly unlikely to happen and it is better not to take chances. So if you notice any worrying symptoms, call an ambulance right away. After all, it is better safe than sorry.

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