December 24th, 2008
09:30 AM ET

Broken heart syndrome

By Karen Denice
CNN Medical Senior Producer

As a medical producer I’ve become a bit of a de facto health adviser to my family. Usually it’s about knee pain or headaches, minor stuff. Unfortunately a few weeks ago it was major – my mother was feeling fatigued, coughing frequently and her heart ached. I was worried, but thought it might just be grief. Her brother had died suddenly just days before and anyone who has dealt with the death of a loved one knows it feels like your heart is physically breaking.

Marie Denice and Karen Denice

Marie Denice and Karen Denice

I’m lucky that my parents are great “empowered patients” and so now in their 70s they work hard to remain in good health. So after some prodding, my mom went to her doctor, who didn’t like the sound of things and sent her to a cardiologist. The cardiologist already had a baseline EKG for her, so when he did another he knew something was wrong. My mom called. “The doctor said I had a heart attack,” and she was going in the next day for an angiogram. Those words still shock me.

Luckily, rational thought returned, and I remembered a story we’d done a couple of years ago on a condition called "broken heart syndrome". It looks like a classic heart attack with an abnormal EKG, chest pain, fatigue etc., but doctors have discovered it is far less damaging to the heart. The New England Journal of Medicine published a study that found stress cardiomyopathy, or broken heart syndrome, can occur when someone, often older women, receive shocking news. The emotional impact of that news can set off a powerful chain reaction – adrenalin and other stress hormones surge – stunning the heart. While this syndrome is still a bit of a mystery, the good news is, doctors believe that, unlike a heart attack, there is usually no long-term impact on the heart.

I e-mailed my mother the study and other articles, hoping this is what she had, hoping there was no damage to her heart. But her angiogram would tell the tale – showing any blockages or damage. Thank goodness, she came out with a clean bill of health and the doctor diagnosed stress cardiomyopathy. Phew!

Days later she went back to her primary care physician to tell him the good news and brought the research I’d sent her. The doctor had never heard of broken heart syndrome. This is an important point for everyone who comes to CNNhealth and is a health consumer. In this state of health care, primary doctors often don’t have time to read all the medical journals and research out there. So, empower yourself and if you suspect your symptoms are something other than what they say – speak up and talk it over with your doctor.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.