Broken-Heart Syndrome is also known as Takotsubo (Stress) Cardiomyopathy

Nurse helping a senior patient. (Wavebreak Media)
Nurse helping a senior patient. (Wavebreak Media)

Takotsubo cardiomyopathy is a transient acute illness typically precipitated by acute emotional stress. It is also known as “stress cardiomyopathy” or “broken-heart syndrome.” In 2011, there was an article on this subject in a medical journal, Circulation, by Dr. Scott W. Sharkey and his colleagues from the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation at Abbott Northwestern Hospital, Minneapolis, MN explaining the signs, symptoms and treatment of this illness.

In Japanese, “tako-tsubo” means “fishing pot for trapping octopus,” and the left ventricle (pumping chamber of the heart) of a patient diagnosed with this condition resembles that shape.

This is a fairly new condition recognized initially in Japan in 1990, with the first report emerging from the United States in 1998. Takotsubo cardiomyopathy starts suddenly, with symptoms of chest pain and, often, shortness of breath. The condition affects women older than 50 years of age (only 10 per cent in men). Most patients go to the emergency department thinking they have a heart attack.

Sharkey gives examples of emotional stressors which include grief (death of a loved one), fear (armed robbery, public speaking), anger (argument with spouse), relationship conflicts (dissolution of marriage), and financial problems (gambling loss, job loss). Physical stressors include acute asthma, surgery, chemotherapy, and stroke.

“Although patients with takotsubo do not have significantly narrowed coronary arteries, in the early hours takotsubo and heart attacks share many similarities in presentation, including chest pain and breathlessness, as well as abnormalities in both the electrocardiogram and blood biochemical tests,” says the article. But coronary angiogram will show normal coronary arteries but unusual shape of the left ventricle that has given takotsubo its unique name.

Once the diagnosis is made (via several invasive investigations) patients are in the intensive care unit for at least 24 hours, during which time vital signs are monitored and blood is tested for troponin (a protein released by injured heart muscle). Medications are used to promote recovery of heart muscle and blood thinners are used to avoid a stroke caused by a blood clot traveling from the heart to the brain.

Major life-threatening complications are infrequent. Low blood pressure (hypotension), fluid buildup in the lungs (congestive heart failure) and a chaotic heart rhythm will require appropriate medications.

“Fortunately, with timely recognition and supportive therapy, takotsubo events are reversible, and recovery is usually rapid and complete. Heart function (contraction) gradually improves over several days and is usually normal by hospital discharge (3–7 days). The term stunned heart muscle is commonly used to indicate that injury in takotsubo, although initially profound, is only temporary. Drugs are discontinued once heart contraction has returned to normal,” says Sharkey.

Why would acute stress cause heart failure? This is an unresolved question. It may have something to do with the autonomic nervous system. It has been suggested that when powerful hormones such as adrenaline are released in excess, the heart muscle can be damaged in patients with takotsubo. Fortunately, the long term prognosis is good. Nearly all patients survive an acute takotsubo episode. In approximately five per cent of patients, a second (or third) stress-induced event may occur. Best thing is to avoid stressful situations. Relax, do deep breathing exercises and keep smiling.

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