For all of us who’ve known heartache on Valentine’s Day and beyond, know this, too: “Broken heart syndrome” is real and should not be ignored. It can lead to severe short-term heart muscle failure, according to UW Medicine, and in rare cases, it can even be fatal.

Symptoms of the syndrome, also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy or takotsubo cardiomyopathy, can include chest pressure, palpitations and weakness, similar to a heart attack, said UW Medicine cardiologist April Stempien-Otero. “But on exam, it turns out, the arteries are normal, it’s not a heart attack, it is this takotsubo cardiomyopathy,” she said.

“Most [cases] are associated with either a personal emotional trauma or also with natural disasters,” said Stempien-Otero. “It’s totally biologic. I mean, it’s stress hormones. It is inflammation caused by those emotions in our brain.”

Powerful emotions produce chemicals and hormones in the body that can cause a part of the heart to temporarily enlarge and pump poorly while the rest of the heart functions normally or with even more forceful contractions.

Stempien-Otero sees a handful of cases every year that are serious enough to merit treatment in the intensive care unit.

While women are more likely to experience the condition after a stressful event, Stempien-Otero has recently treated several men as well.


Although symptoms can be similar to those of a heart attack, here are some key differences, according to the American Heart Association:

  • EKG (a test that records the heart’s electric activity) results don’t look the same as the EKG results for a person who has had a heart attack.
  • Blood tests show no signs of heart damage.
  • Tests show no signs of blockages in the coronary arteries.
  • Tests show ballooning and unusual movement of the lower left heart chamber (left ventricle).
  • Recovery time is quick, usually within days or weeks (compared with the recovery time of a month or more for a heart attack).

With supportive care, most patients can fully recover from symptoms within a couple of weeks, but in rare cases, ignoring the symptoms can lead to fatal heart muscle failure, she said.

“It’s very moving, taking care of these people when they have that realization that this emotional event is what caused their heart [issue],” Stempien-Otero said. “It’s just a real moment for people, of recognizing that heart-mind connection and what it can really do to us.”