What is Stress Cardiomyopathy?

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  • Written By: Marjorie McAtee
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 02 October 2018
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Stress cardiomyopathy, also known as broken heart syndrome, refers to a severe weakness of the heart muscle following sudden stress. The stress trigger can be physical, such as a stroke or injury, or emotional, such as extreme grief, anger, fear, or surprise. Patients suffering stress cardiomyopathy typically experience symptoms similar to those of cardiac arrest. Most patients diagnosed with broken heart syndrome are post-menopausal women with no prior history of cardiovascular disease. With appropriate and timely treatment, most stress cardiomyopathy patients make a full recovery.

In times of physical or emotional stress, the human body produces elevated levels of the stress hormone, adrenaline. Adrenaline has long been implicated in the "fight or flight" response to danger. It can provide the strength necessary to fend off or flee from an attacker or a dangerous situation.

Medical science does not yet have a full understanding of how adrenaline impacts the heart, but they suspect that, in stress cardiomyopathy, an enormous rush of adrenaline simply overwhelms the heart muscle. This can impair heart function, though, usually, that impairment is temporary and leaves behind no permanent ill effects.


Many people who experience broken heart syndrome feel like they are having a heart attack. Symptoms include shortness of breath, low blood pressure, congestive heart failure, and chest pain. When a heart attack occurs, however, arteries around the heart become blocked, restricting blood flow and causing tissue death in the heart muscle. Most people with stress cardiomyopathy also have healthy cardiovascular systems, and have not experienced any arterial blockage. The adrenaline rush implicated in broken heart syndrome seems to temporarily paralyze heart tissue, but does not kill it.

The symptoms of stress cardiomyopathy usually appear suddenly. They are often so severe that patients immediately seek medical treatment. Broken heart syndrome can cause significant, if temporary, heart muscle weakness. Most patients need to be hospitalized while they recover.

With treatment, the prognosis for stress cardiomyopathy is very good. The heart muscle usually recovers from temporary paralysis within 14 days, and the disease usually leaves no lasting damage. Most patients recover completely. Doctors do not yet know what the rates of recurrence are for broken heart syndrome, but many believe that the disease is unlikely to recur.



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