Individuals in generally good health, with no history of heart disease, can go into heart failure as a result of sudden emotional stress (eg, grief, fear, anger, or shock). The condition called stress cardiomyopathy, nicknamed broken heart syndrome by physicians, appears to affect primarily women. Reporting in the New England Journal of Medicine (February 2005), researchers described events that sent 18 women and 1 man to coronary care units with chest pain and weakening of the heart. The events responsible for the condition included a surprise party, a car accident, and a death in the family.
The researchers attributed the onset of the syndrome to a large burst of adrenaline that was bad for the heart muscle and "stunned"it, leaving it temporarily unable to contract. During the study, the researchers measured adrenaline and related stress hormones in 13 patients with the syndrome and determined the levels to be 2 to 3 times those of individuals having severe heart attacks, and 7 to 34 times normal levels.
While the patients recovered fully and had no lasting damage to the heart muscle, the researchers stressed the importance of being able to distinguish the syndrome from a heart attack. By doing so, the patients can be treated properly and know their hearts are healthy, rather than being informed that they have coronary disease and need to take medications for the rest of their lives.