Over the past year, many people have experienced different forms of stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic. For some, the day-to-day changes like working from home while managing kids home from school have been a challenge. Still, others have experienced long-term stress related to dealing with finances, social unrest in our country, and fears and grief surrounding the COVID-19 virus.
“Types of stress – physical and mental, or long-term vs. short-term, can impact your heart differently,” says Khaled Abdul-Nour, M.D., a cardiologist with Henry Ford Health. “COVID itself can be very stressful on the heart.”
And all of this added stress has taken a toll. Recent studies have found an increase in stress-related conditions because of the COVID-19 pandemic – including broken heart syndrome.
What Is Broken Heart Syndrome?
Broken heart syndrome (or stress cardiomyopathy) is a heart condition brought on by sudden emotional or physical stress – usually following a severe emotional or life-altering event.
Most commonly, broken heart syndrome has been linked to the death of a loved one or the end of a long-term relationship. However, it can also occur after the loss of a job, because of an illness, or a combination of other seemingly minor stressful events.
“This sudden mental stress can impact the heart,” says Dr. Abdul-Nour. “The good news is that mental stress on the heart is often short-lived and reversible."
Is It Broken Heart Syndrome Or A Heart Attack?
For the most part, broken heart syndrome and a heart attack present in very similar ways. You may experience:
- Tightness or pain in your chest
- Heart palpitations or a flutter in your chest
- Fainting or near fainting spells
These two conditions (broken heart syndrome and a heart attack) often look so similar that testing can appear abnormal in both cases.
“We will do whatever we can to support the patient until we are able to determine what is causing their symptoms,” says Dr. Abdul-Nour. “In many cases though, we won’t really know if it is broken heart syndrome or a heart attack until we have gone in with cardiac catherization and identified whether or not you have any heart blockages.”
The biggest difference between a heart attack and broken heart syndrome is the with broken heart syndrome, the coronary arteries are normal, and recovery is complete. Often, patients who end up in the hospital with this condition are back to feeling like themselves again as early as a few days to a month later.
Treating Broken Heart Syndrome
Once it is determined you have broken heart syndrome, hospital staff can help relieve your symptoms by prescribing pain medications or breathing support with oxygen. They may continue to run tests to make sure that your heart function had returned back to normal. Medications may be prescribed for a short period of time to help your heart pump to capacity. Symptoms of this condition will ultimately go away on their own after two to three days. Your heart will return to normal function in about a week.
“COVID-19 has been catastrophic to people who have lost family members,” says Dr. Abdul-Nour. “Stress like this can have major effects on your heart. Unfortunately, we cannot predict who is more likely to suffer from broken heart syndrome when exposed to severe emotional or physical stress."
Fortunately, there are no long-term effects of broken heart syndrome. However, if you have had broken heart syndrome before, you are at some risk of it happening again. Talk to your doctor or cardiologist about ways that you can prevent future episodes. They may make recommendations about maintaining your heart health or how to manage stressful situations. In some instances, medication may be used to manage the adrenaline surge you get when experiencing a major emotional situation.
Dr. Khaled Abdul-Nour is a cardiologist who sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, and at Henry Ford Medical Centers – Pierson Clinic in Grosse Pointe Farms and Second Avenue in Detroit.