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Broken-heart syndrome on the rise

A pair of shoes with laces that are arranged in the shape of a heart.

A heart condition linked to stress may be on the rise because of anxiety about COVID-19, suggests a new study.

Researchers studied over 1,900 patients coming into two Ohio hospitals with heart symptoms both before and after the start of the pandemic. They found a significant increase in patients diagnosed with stress cardiomyopathy after the onset of the pandemic. Stress cardiomyopathy is also known as broken-heart syndrome.

The most common symptoms are chest pain and shortness of breath. Irregular heartbeat may also occur, as may cardiogenic shock. That's a potentially fatal condition in which a suddenly weakened heart can't pump enough blood.

The causes of broken-heart syndrome aren't fully understood. But it's believed to be a reaction to a surge of stress hormones caused by physically or emotionally stressful events.

Not a heart attack, but it may feel like one

According to the American Heart Association, broken-heart syndrome can be easily mistaken for a heart attack. But unlike a heart attack, there's no evidence of blocked arteries. Still, it can result in severe, short-term heart muscle failure.

Fortunately, people usually recover quickly from broken-heart syndrome, often within days or weeks. It can be treated with heart medicines to lower blood pressure and slow the heart rate.

The study suggests that the many stresses of the pandemic—worries over the economy, societal issues, and loneliness and isolation—may be behind the spike in broken-heart syndrome.

The study was published in the online journal JAMA Network Open.

How to lower your stress levels

If the pandemic has you on edge, here are some steps you can take to cope with stress in healthy ways:

  • Limit the time you spend watching or reading the news.
  • Make time to relax. Take deep breaths, stretch or meditate.
  • Move every day. Regular exercise can relieve stress.
  • Try to eat healthy, well-balanced meals.
  • Get plenty of sleep.
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs.
  • Try to do something you enjoy every day.
  • Connect with friends and loved ones. If you can't see them in person, call or video chat.
  • Learn the facts about COVID-19. Know what you can do to stop the spread of the disease.
  • Take care of your mental health. Call your doctor if you think stress is getting in the way of your daily activities. You may need to see a counselor.

Want more ideas for staying healthy during the pandemic? Visit our Coronavirus health topic center.

Reviewed 9/8/2020

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