ARLINGTON, Texas — As individuals continue to adhere to proper hand hygiene, safe distancing and appropriate masking practices, the COVID-19 pandemic challenges how North Texans approach daily activities. Bringing about additional stress for some people, the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be triggering a significant increase in patients experiencing stress cardiomyopathy, also known as broken heart syndrome, doctors on the medical staff at Texas Health Resources say.
Their observations echo the finding of a recent study by the Cleveland Clinic.
“When children are learning virtually, parents are fulfilling normal work requirements and trying to keep everyone healthy, simultaneously and under the same roof. That can take a toll on the body,” said Ashesh Parikh, M.D., a cardiologist on the medical staff at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Plano and a member of Texas Health Heart & Vascular Specialists, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice.* “Stress can have negative effects on our bodies, specifically our hearts, even temporarily reducing the heart’s ability to pump normally.”
When a patient suffers from broken heart syndrome, the body releases stress hormones, called catecholamines, into the bloodstream, severely weakening the heart muscle, said Carl Horton, M.D., a cardiologist on the medical staff at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Cleburne and a member of Consultants in Cardiology, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice.*
“It’s rare, but some patients suffer from an irregular heartbeat or even go into cardiogenic shock,” Horton said. “That means the heart can’t pump enough blood because of stress hormones affecting the heart’s function. Even though it’s usually temporary, it’s still a serious complication.”
Most often mimicking signs of a heart attack, broken heart syndrome causes individuals to feel pain in the chest, find it hard to breathe, and sometimes feel nauseous and sweaty.
“It looks and talks like a heart attack, but when you do an angiogram or heart catheterization, no arterial blockages are seen,” Parikh said. “What is seen is a very dilated heart that takes on the shape of a spade, like in a deck of cards. The heart is enlarged at the top and narrow at the bottom.”
The recent study, by the Cleveland Clinic, is the first to analyze broken heart syndrome, along with the psychological, social and economic stressors connected to the COVID-19 pandemic. Between March and April, researchers documented close to an 8 percent increase in patients suffering from broken heart syndrome, compared to a nearly 2 percent incident rate before the pandemic.
Parikh isn’t surprised by the numbers.
“During the start of the pandemic, a lot of patients were simply afraid to go to the hospital, because they didn’t know if protocols were in place or if COVID-19 patients were being separated from the general population,” Parikh said. “That led to an unfortunate number of patients having strokes, heart attacks and broken heart syndrome episodes at home. Thankfully, the fear factor is diminishing, and people are seeking medical treatment when they need it.”
And Mark Peterman, M.D., a cardiologist on the medical staff at Texas Health Plano, said the study is significant because it shines a light on the importance of identifying acutely ill COVID-19 patients.
“The health care system is already strained by COVID-19 patients who present with cardiac injuries resulting from the coronavirus, such as blood clots,” Peterman said. “When we can separate broken heart syndrome patients out of the equation, it helps care team members address those patients needing a higher level of medical treatment.”
Even though Parikh and other cardiologists have noticed an uptick in broken heart syndrome cases, he remains optimistic.
“Luckily, broken heart syndrome is a reversible condition, in most cases,” Parikh said. “With medication, patients improve. And if time is made for exercising, connecting with family and friends at a safe distance and making healthy food choices, we can relieve some of the anxiety and stress affecting us all during this pandemic.”
*Physicians employed by Texas Health Physician Group practice independently and are not employees or agents of Texas Health Resources hospitals.
About Texas Health Resources
Texas Health Resources is a faith-based, nonprofit health system that cares for more patients in North Texas than any other provider. With a service area that consists of 16 counties and more than 7 million people, the system is committed to providing quality, coordinated care through its Texas Health Physicians Group and 29 hospital locations under the banners of Texas Health Presbyterian, Texas Health Arlington Memorial, Texas Health Harris Methodist and Texas Health Huguley. Texas Health access points and services, ranging from acute-care hospitals and trauma centers to outpatient facilities and home health and preventive services, provide the full continuum of care for all stages of life. The system has more than 4,100 licensed hospital beds, 6,400 physicians with active staff privileges and more than 26,000 employees. For more information about Texas Health, call 1-877-THR-WELL, or visit www.TexasHealth.org.