Turns out there is such a thing. Oh yes, we already knew that. But I mean that medical science has now identified an actual physical abnormality of the heart organ that can occur upon hearing bad news, having a traumatic experience, losing a loved one, being in a car accident, or other extreme emotional stress. The person experiences chest pain just the same as a “regular” heart attack, with sweating and palpitations possible, even nausea and vomiting possible. Absolutely indistinguishable from a classic heart attack.
And unlike the usual “stress related symptoms” that get blown off by the usual players in the ED, this one has objective findings like abnormal EKG, and extremely abnormal echocardiogram. What happens is that parts of the wall of the ventricles just plain stop working and are seen on visual tests to be ballooned out and not even participating with the otherwise coordinated movements of the heart muscle.
For pictures and the whole medical megilla, click here.
The good news is that as the emotional trauma and grief process resolves, so does the “broken heart syndrome,” and the physical heart does heal. Very occasionally (1-2%), though, someone will actually die of a broken heart.
One of my dearest physician mentors had a saying: “Listen to the patient telling you the diagnosis.” If your patient tells you his heart is broken, it just might be.