A study recently reported in New England Journal of Medicine revealed extreme stress can trigger what seems to be a heart attack, but is really a condition known as "broken heart" syndrome.

Researchers cautioned doctors to differentiate between the two since treatments for each are different. Broken heart syndrome, or stress cardiomyopathy (heart muscle tissue disease), is caused when the body's fight or flight response, produced by a rush of adrenaline and other stress related hormones, appears to over stimulate the nervous system overwhelming the heart. The study indicates that levels of flight hormones were two to three times greater than levels in patients who had a heart attack. Stress, such as after a car crash, the death of a loved one, armed robbery, shock, fear, anger or grief is responsible for stunning the heart and sending it into a severe, yet reversible, temporary abnormal heart fuction. In one case, a woman who was surprised by guests jumping out of the dark at her sixtieth birthday party was admitted to an intensive care unit just hours later.

The unique feature of broken heart syndrome is that it occurs in otherwise healthy patients (usually women) with low risk factors for heart disease. The immediate symptoms appear to be those of a heart attack, with chest pain, ill feelings, and shortness of breath. However, electrocardiogram (EKG) changes and cardiac enzyme levels are not typical of heart attack.

Additionally, examination of the coronary artery blood flow is normal. Although death can result from broken heart syndrome, most patients recover with no long-lasting heart damage.

How can you protect yourself from broken heart syndrome?

Prevention is the key to heart health. Physicians advise building stress management regimens into daily activity. Workouts that include yoga or meditation are both effective in helping the body become more effective in dealing with life's inevitable emotional