COVID-19 pandemic causes surge in cases of broken heart syndrome

A condition described as ‘broken heart syndrome’, otherwise known as stress cardiomyopathy, has increased fourfold since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic.

This is according to a study conducted by researchers at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, USA.


Nicole Jennings, spokesperson for Pharma Dynamics, says that the extended lockdown orders – having to isolate and cancel special events, and not seeing friends and family for an extended period – have had a profound impact on our hearts.

“In most cases, broken heart syndrome is triggered by severe stress and extreme emotions, such as having to deal with the sudden loss of a loved one, divorce or a major financial loss. The unexpected rush of adrenaline weakens the heart muscle, causing palpitations and arrhythmias/irregular heart rhythms. It also interferes with the pumping function of the heart, causing a ballooning effect. Sufferers may experience sudden chest pain and shortness of breath – similar to a heart attack – but fortunately in most cases, its effect is only temporary. The condition usually reverses itself within a few days or weeks.

“At first, patients seem like they may have experienced a heart attack, but further examination reveals no signs of blocked coronary arteries or history of cardiovascular disease.

“The pandemic has caused severe psychological, social and economic stress in people’s lives all over the world. This research gives us a glimpse into the broader impact that COVID-19 has had, not only on those with pre-existing health conditions, but also on the broader population.”


While most recover from broken heart syndrome without any long-term effects, 10 % become critically ill and in 1-2 % of cases it can be fatal.

Jennings cautions that sudden chest pain and shortness of breath should always be taken seriously, as these symptoms could be signs of a heart attack which requires immediate action.

Medical emergency numbers to save to your phone are as follows:

  • 10177 for an ambulance (nationwide)
  • 112 can also be dialed from a cellphone
  • Netcare911 will respond to emergencies whether you are a member or not. Dial: 082 911 or contact,
  • ER24: 084 124.

“Once stabilised, your doctor may run a few tests, such as a coronary angiopathy or take X-rays for a closer look at your coronary arteries. Other diagnostic tests include blood tests, ECG and an MRI. Your doctor may also put you on medication,” says Jennings.


Risk factors for broken heart syndrome include age, a history of a neurological condition (such as epilepsy) and a previous or existing psychiatric disorder (such as depression and anxiety). Other symptoms include, arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), cardiogenic shock, fainting and low blood pressure.

Jennings highlights that as the pandemic progresses, selfcare is of utmost importance to our heart-health, “Those who feel anxious and overwhelmed by the pandemic – both physically and mentally – need to reach out to their GPs for help.”


She suggests the following ways to alleviate stress and anxiety:

  • Stay in the present. When you find yourself fretting about what could happen, reel yourself back to the present moment and only focus on what’s happening right now. Retraining your brain to deal with anxious thoughts and feelings in a rational way will help get you into a healthy pattern of thinking.
  • Practice relaxation techniques. These will help lower stress and the chance of headaches and can help ease tense muscles. Examples of relaxation techniques to try include, deep breathing, yoga, meditation, massage or listening to soothing music.
  • Eat healthily. When you’re under a lot of stress, you tend to eat unhealthily and to smoke and drink alcohol more often. Revise your diet and eat foods that are high in antioxidants to boost feel-good hormones (endorphins).
  • Just 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise, such as brisk walking, swimming or cycling, can boost your mood and will help you to think more clearly.
  • Get some sunshine. Vitamin D plays an important role in regulating mood and keeping depression at bay, so make a point of spending at least 20 minutes outside every day. Vitamin D is also needed to keep your immune system strong to fight off viral infections like the cold and flu.
  • Phone a friend or family member. Seek support from loved ones and speak to them about your concerns. Sometimes voicing your fears helps you to see things more clearly.
  • Watch a funny movie. Laughter is good medicine for an anxious mind and has lots of benefits for your mental health and well-being.

Jennings emphasises, “Being proactive about managing stress in your life is good for your heart and may help to prevent broken heart syndrome.”

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