Have you ever felt as if your heart was going to shatter into a million pieces or if your heart was being ripped out of your chest after a breakup, loss of a loved one, or from hearing some traumatic news? The pain and muscle tightness experienced in our chests after a stressful event are results of a condition called broken heart syndrome. Specifically, broken heart syndrome is stress-induced heart muscle failure or cardiomyopathy.
Symptoms of broken heart syndrome are very similar to those of a heart attack; they include increased heart rate, chest pain (also known as angina), chest tightness, shortness of breath, and abnormal stomach activity. The difference between broken heart syndrome and a heart attack, however, is that these symptoms of broken heart syndrome are not caused by a blocked artery or blood clots, which is good news because this means that a full recovery is possible. Other symptoms of broken heart syndrome may be arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats) and cardiogenic shock (the weakening of the heart and consequently, the incapability of the heart to pump enough blood to the body).
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Although researchers do not completely understand the phenomenon behind heart ache (physical pain) following heartache (emotional pain), there have been some hypotheses. Some scientists believe that when we experience intense emotional stress characterized by grief, anger, and/or surprise, our bodies trigger the release of hormones that temporarily “shock” our heart into malfunctioning, preventing sufficient pumping of blood.
Others, on the other hand, hypothesize that the anterior cingulate cortex, a region in the brain that regulates emotional reactions, stimulates the vagus nerve into overdrive; the vagus nerve is a nerve connecting the brain stem to the neck, chest, and abdomen. Overstimulation of the vagus nerve results in pain and nausea, such as muscle tightness and pain in the chest area.
Whether it is because of our hormones or because our vagus nerve is triggered by our anterior cingulate cortex, stressful events traumatize us both emotionally and physically. While emotional pain can be in the form of sorrow or anger, physical pain is in the form of heart attack-like symptoms. We conclusively call this physical pain the broken heart syndrome.
Feature Image Source: Flickr by Viki Young