Can you really die of a broken heart?

Written by: Dr Alexander Lyon
Edited by: Emily Lawrenson

Putting aside the cartoon image of a heart split into two jagged pieces, broken heart syndrome – or Takotsubo syndrome, in medical terms – is a very real thing. Broken heart syndrome occurs when the muscular sections of the heart temporarily weaken. This weakening is connected to traumatic events, such as emotional stress, the death of someone you love, or a relationship break-up. In some cases it can be brought on by joyous events - imagine a big casino payout, an unexpected marriage proposal, or a happy reunion. Broken heart syndrome usually occurs after intense emotional, or even physical stress.



What is broken heart syndrome?

Broken heart syndrome is known more commonly in the medical world as Takotsubo syndrome, or takotsubo cardiomyopathy. ‘Takotsubo’ comes from Japanese, as the condition was first identified in Japan. The word ‘takotsubo’ refers to a particular type of octopus trap, which looks exactly like the shape of the left ventricle (one of the four chambers of the heart) when this syndrome strikes.

Takotsubo cardiomyopathy occurs when the left ventricle changes shape, and becomes bigger. Symptoms tend to present themselves shortly after emotional stress, and the syndrome affects women more than it does men. Sometimes no trigger can really be identified.


What are the symptoms of broken heart syndrome?

Takotsubo syndrome is often misdiagnosed as a heart attack, mostly because test results and symptoms look and feel very similar. Symptoms include chest pain and shortness of breath, which comes on suddenly. Some patients also report a sensation of nausea, while some do vomit, or experience heart palpitations. However, with broken heart syndrome, there are no blockages in the coronary arteries (which is the usual cause of a heart attack), but when an area of the heart becomes enlarged, blood is not able to circulate properly around the body.


How long does it take to recover from a broken heart?

While Takotsubo syndrome is a serious illness during the immediate phase, with potential medical complications, most people make a complete recovery within a few weeks. However, in a minority of cases, it can recur, and some people are left with permanent heart problems after the initial attack. During the acute episode it can prove fatal, and therefore is taken seriously. Specialist assessment is appropriate to manage and guide treatment, and provide future follow up strategies.


Dr. Alexander Lyon has been studying Takotsubo syndrome for over 10 years and is the first author of the professional position statement for the Heart Failure Association (HFA) of the European Society of Cardiology1 and is the chair of the HFA Takotsubo Syndrome Study Group. He sees many people who have experienced an episode of Takotsubo syndrome, reviewing their current medication and providing a personalised management plan for the future. He has also hosted the first Takotsubo syndrome patient workshop to help support people who have suffered from this syndrome.


  1. Lyon AR, Bossone E, Schneider B, Sechtem U, Citro R, Underwood SR, Sheppard MN, Figtree GA, Parodi G, Akashi YJ, Ruschitzka F, Filippatos G, Mebazaa A, Omerovic E. Current state of knowledge on Takotsubo syndrome: a Position Statement from the Taskforce on Takotsubo Syndrome of the Heart Failure Association of the European Society of Cardiology. European journal of heart failure. 2016;18(1):8-27.

By Dr Alexander Lyon

Dr Alexander Lyon is a leading London-based consultant cardiologist, specialising in the field of heart failure, cardiomyopathy, cardio-oncology and Takotsubo syndrome. He is highly experienced, and is well-versed in all aspects of cardiology. Along with his private clinics at Royal Brompton Hospital and in central London, he is also senior lecturer for the National Heart and Lung Institute at Imperial College London.

Dr Lyon graduated with a first class degree from Oxford University, and gained experience doing post-graduate training in London and Sydney, Australia before setting up private practice in London. He also holds a PhD. He is renowned for his research into heart failure and Takotsubo syndrome, and is lead for the heart failure research theme of the Biomedical Research Unit at the Royal Brompton Hospital, funded by the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR). 

Dr Alexander Lyon is passionate about improving the quality and the length of life of people with heart failure, and believes that a stronger focus on early detection and treatment is the future of cardiology. 

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