Stress can cause a cardiac event that resembles a heart attack
While stress can't directly cause a heart attack, it can have a major impact on your heart health, and even trigger an event that feels just like a heart attack.
Here's what you need to know about stress-induced cardiomyopathy, as well as the effects of chronic stress on your heart and how to manage it.
Stress can cause "broken heart syndrome," which feels like a heart attack
One of the most dramatic ways stress can affect your heart is by causing takotsubo cardiomyopathy, also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy or "broken heart syndrome."
This feels just like a heart attack, with symptoms including chest pain and shortness of breath, but it is a different condition altogether. Those symptoms come on suddenly, triggered by a stressful emotional event, such as the sudden death of a loved one.
However, that's not the case. A heart attack occurs when an artery to the heart is blocked. Takotsubo cardiomyopathy has no underlying blockages. Its exact causes aren't known, but are thought to be tied to a sudden hormonal surge from the body's fight or flight response.
"Takotsubo cardiomyopathy is a fundamentally different phenomenon than a heart attack," Gilstrap says. "The arteries are completely fine and the blood supply is completely normal, but all of a sudden, the heart doesn't squeeze."
That means, suddenly, not enough blood is being pumped throughout the body, which is considered acute heart failure. Although the condition comes on suddenly, your heart may not pump efficiently for two to four weeks, though most patients will return to normal heart function within two months. Most patients with takotsubo cardiomyopathy will be treated with a heart failure protocol, including beta-blockers and other medications.
Takotsubo cardiomyopathy is most common in women aged 58 to 75, who make up more than 90% of cases. Doctors aren't entirely sure why, but one study found that women experience higher rates of emotional stress. About 5% of women who think they're having a heart attack are actually experiencing stress-induced cardiomyopathy.
Still, true heart attacks are more common than takotsubo cardiomyopathy: only about 2% of people presenting at hospitals for symptoms of heart attack actually have takotsubo cardiomyopathy.
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