The coronavirus pandemic has taken an emotional toll on millions around the world. Now scientific evidence from two Ohio hospitals gives a glimpse of what that looks like — physically.
Researchers with the Cleveland Clinic revealed that diagnoses of “broken heart syndrome” have surged since the pandemic began, pointing to the “psychological, social, and economic stress” it has poured over both healthy and sick individuals, according to a small study published Thursday in the journal JAMA Network Open.
Also known as stress cardiomyopathy, broken heart syndrome can resemble a heart attack with symptoms such as chest pain and shortness of breath, is usually not fatal and is temporary, the researchers said.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about multiple levels of stress in people’s lives across the country and world. People are not only worried about themselves or their families becoming ill, they are dealing with economic and emotional issues, societal problems and potential loneliness and isolation,” the study’s lead author, Dr. Ankur Kalra, a Cleveland Clinic cardiologist in the Sections of Invasive and Interventional Cardiology and Regional Cardiovascular Medicine, said in a news release.
“The stress can have physical effects on our bodies and our hearts, as evidenced by the increasing diagnoses of stress cardiomyopathy we are experiencing.”
The causes of broken heart syndrome are not fully understood, but it’s widely believed that physically or emotionally stressful events can cause a spike in stress hormones in the body that block the heart’s ability to pump blood to throughout the body.
“Other symptoms include irregular heartbeat, fainting and low blood pressure,” according to the researchers.
What did the study find?
The team looked at a total of 1,914 patients with heart problems, 258 of which visited the Cleveland Clinic health system in Northeast Ohio between March 1 and April 30 — when the coronavirus was spreading rampantly.
None of these patients tested positive for COVID-19, the researchers confirmed.
The other patients saw health care professionals for their heart issues prior to the pandemic and were divided into four groups depending on when they were admitted in the last two years, the study said.
During the COVID-19 period, there was a total of 20 patients diagnosed with broken heart syndrome, compared to pre-COVID times, “which ranged from 5 to 12 patients.”
That’s a surge in incidence rate by 6.1 percentage points, according to the news release.
Patients hospitalized during the pandemic also stayed in the hospital for more days than those before it, the release said, but “there was no significant difference in mortality between the groups.”
“Patients with stress cardiomyopathy generally recover their heart function and recover in a matter of days or weeks, although the condition can occasionally cause major adverse cardiac and cerebrovascular events and rarely can be fatal,” the researchers said in the release.
Limitations with the study
One expert told CNN there might be biases in the study’s samples because only patients who received procedures to check for blockages in the heart were studied, according to the outlet.
Dr. John Horowitz, an emeritus cardiology professor at the University of Adelaide in Australia and an expert on the condition, said such specificity might exclude other kinds of patients such as older and sicker ones who are worth studying.
“They might be completely right. I don’t object to the hypothesis. I object to the statistical methods,” Horowitz told CNN. “It’s well-known that patients quite frequently get [broken heart] syndrome at times of extreme stress or during natural disasters,” Horowitz said. “But there are problems with the way the study was designed. I don’t believe all of these cases are [broken heart syndrome]. It’s as simple as that.”
The study authors said more research is needed to learn if other countries are noticing this trend, as well.