Losing a loved one, the sudden stress of receiving bad news, intense fear or domestic violence can break your heart. But this isn’t in the emotional sense we usually think about. There is an acute heart problem seen primarily in women of menopausal age in which the heart weakens in the face of sudden stress. The main pumping chamber of the heart balloons instead of contracts. Resulting chest pain and shortness of breath are symptoms indistinguishable from a heart attack.
The electrocardiogram shows classic ST segment elevation found in heart attacks. In addition, there is often a small sharp rise in troponin, a heart injury blood marker. In a typical heart attack caused by a blocked coronary artery, the damaged heart muscle cells leak troponin, but usually in larger amounts.
If an angiogram determines there is a blocked artery the cardiologist will likely place a stent. But in the broken heart syndrome known as Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy, instead of finding blockage, the coronary arteries are clear — the results indicate a failing heart with an odd shape. It looks like an octopus trap (a tako-tsubo).
The actual cause of this disorder is not known but is likely related to a surge of stress hormones that stun the heart and prevent normal muscle contraction. Takotsubo is usually seen in older estrogen-deficient menopausal women. However, younger women who lack estrogen because of surgical menopause from ovary removal are also at risk. Animal studies show estrogen appears to protect the heart in stress states.
There are no treatments shown to reverse Takotsubo. Doctors usually order common heart failure medications including beta blockers (to reduce heart rate and blood pressure), ACE inhibitors (to dilate arteries making it easier for the heart to pump) and diuretics (to remove excess fluid). It isn’t known if continuing the drugs can prevent a recurrence, but within two months, most patients fully recover. A few women are left with reduced heart function, and occasionally abnormal heart rhythms occur.
Women in this age group may also have underlying heart disease requiring medical management unrelated to the sudden stress state. Like men, women develop blockage of the major coronary arteries.
Another heart problem most often seen in women involves only small heart arteries. The large coronary arteries are clear but tiny arteriolar vessels are diseased. Microvascular disease is serious. It can lead to heart attacks and heart failure. A treadmill in combination with continuous monitoring, followed by echocardiogram to check heart function will show abnormalities. Microvascular disease is also treated medically.
Techniques used to help reduce stress hormone surges include: progressive muscle relaxation, exercise, yoga, avoiding alcohol and caffeine. Controlling anxiety is not easy and counseling may be necessary.
Betty Kuffel, MD