As far as metaphorical symbols go, few are as enmeshed in everyday life as the heart. Sure, it’s the life-giving organ that pumps blood throughout our body, but it’s also the symbol of romantic love. And just on the other side of that is heartbreak. The subject of countless songs, referring to loss or longing as a broken heart goes back to ancient times. But hey, it’s just a metaphor. No one ever died of a broken heart, right? Well…not quite.
It turns out that heartbreak can actually be fatal—but it’s extremely rare. Sometimes called broken heart syndrome, takotsubo cardiomyopathy is the closest thing to a physical manifestation of heartbreak that there is. It involves a weakening of the heart muscles, but here’s where feelings come in. While physical stressors on the body may play a part, it can also be caused by emotional stressors—which can of course include loss, divorce, or other trauma.
Studies found that patients who experienced takotsubo cardiomyopathy had high levels of a stress hormone in the brain, which can in turn have a dire effect on the heart. While most patients who experience it recover, it can be fatal. It can also lead to complications like heart failure and myocardial rupture. Luckily, it’s rare, making up only 0.02% of hospitalizations in the US.
Thanks to its symptoms, takotsubo cardiomyopathy is often mistaken for myocardial infarction, or a heart attack. While medical treatments are used to resolve takotsubo cardiomyopathy, some of the classic cures for metaphorical heartbreak are also recommended. Learning to manage stress is one lifestyle change that can help. Another factor that helps symptoms to dissipate? Time—yes, the one that heals all wounds. However, it remains unclear if chocolate and a good cry at When Harry Met Sally works as well for cardiomyopathy as it does a broken heart.