‘Broken Heart Syndrome' Rises Alongside COVID-19

chest pain

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Key Takeaways

  • Cases of broken heart syndrome are increasing in some hospitals.
  • The rise in cases correlates with the pandemic’s timeline.
  • Researchers say the stress of coronavirus—not coronavirus itself—may be the cause.

New research from the Cleveland Clinic identified a link between COVID-19 and cases of “broken heart syndrome.” The study, published in published in JAMA Network Open on July 9, found a significant rise in cases in the U.S. after March 1.

Broken heart syndrome, also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy or Takotsubo syndrome, happens when part of your heart temporarily enlarges and doesn’t pump well, while the rest of your heart functions normally or with even more forceful contractions, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). Symptoms are similar to a heart attack, but it’s sparked by stress. While the AHA says broken heart syndrome is usually treatable, it can be fatal.

The Cleveland Clinic study analyzed data from 1,914 patients at two Ohio hospitals who had acute coronary syndrome—an urgent heart issue. None of these patients tested positive for COVID-19. Researchers compared patients who sought care in March or April of this year to those who had similar health problems in 2018 and 2019.

The researchers discovered that people were significantly more likely to experience broken heart syndrome during the pandemic. Specifically, instances of broken heart syndrome jumped up from 1.8% before the pandemic to 7.8% during the pandemic.

"These findings suggest that psychological, social, and economic stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic was associated with an increased incidence of stress cardiomyopathy," the study authors wrote, indicating that the disease itself is not directly responsible for this heart problem.

The study’s researchers don’t think the increase is a coincidence. Lead study author Ankur Kalra, MD, associate professor of medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, tells Verywell that the rise in cases is likely due to “the current environment, with a complex interplay of psychological, social, and economic impact of the pandemic.”

Correlation doesn’t equal causation. The researchers behind the study can’t prove that the pandemic caused the rise in cases of broken heart syndrome—just that there was an increase after the pandemic began.

What Causes Broken Heart Syndrome?

Broken heart syndrome is a newly-recognized cardiac condition. While there are plenty of case studies about broken heart syndrome, there hasn't been a lot of research in humans about the condition, Nicole Weinberg, MD, a cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells Verywell.

Broken heart syndrome isn’t unique to the pandemic. It can be sparked by a variety of factors, including intense emotional stress and grief, Jennifer Haythe, MD, a critical care cardiologist and co-director of the Women’s Center for Cardiovascular Health at Columbia, tells Verywell. Despite its name, the cause of broken heart syndrome isn't just failed relationships, Haythe says—it's any form of intense stress. The AHA says people can even experience broken heart syndrome after going through good stress, like winning the lottery.

It’s not just about emotional stress; people can develop broken heart syndrome after having physical stress, too, like respiratory distress, stroke, seizure, and bleeding, Haythe says.

But it’s not entirely clear why some people who are under stress will experience broken heart syndrome while others do just fine, heart-wise.

“We don’t know why just yet,” Kalra says. “It’s currently being investigated in animal models.”

What experts do know, though, is that women tend to experience broken heart syndrome more than men—nearly 90% of patients are female, Weinberg says. People with the condition also tend to be in their 60s. But, overall, there's still a lot to be learned about broken heart syndrome.

Nicole Weinberg, MD

If you’re having chest pain and shortness of breath, these are things to contact your physician about—or go immediately to the emergency room.

— Nicole Weinberg, MD

What Are the Symptoms?

These are the most common signs of broken heart syndrome, according to the AHA:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Irregular heartbeats

Haythe says people may also experience sweating, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting.

Kalra’s research on this isn’t over. He says his team is “accruing more data” to see if the increasing trend of broken heart syndrome continues.

“Only the future—and more data—will tell,” Kalra says.

What This Means For You

Broken heart syndrome is triggered by stress and cases of the condition seem to be rising. If you develop symptoms of chest pain and difficulty breathing, seek medical attention right away.

A Word From Verywell's Medical Expert Board

"Most people with broken heart syndrome recover completely within a few weeks. The symptoms and condition often improve as the stressful event resolves. Activities such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, and focusing on the positives can all help to mitigate stress and anxiety, and thus help prevent broken heart syndrome." — Jenny Sweigard, MD

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Jabri A, Kalra A, Kumar A, et al. Incidence of stress cardiomyopathy during the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic. JAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(7):e2014780. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.14780

  2. American Heart Association. Is broken heart syndrome real?

By Korin Miller
Korin Miller is a health and lifestyle journalist who has been published in The Washington Post, Prevention, SELF, Women's Health, The Bump, and Yahoo, among other outlets.