Stress and the heart: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Dr Prabhakar C Koregol, Consultant-Cardiac Sciences & Interventional Cardiology, Fortis Hospitals talks about stress cardiomyopathy and its treatment

Annually, the World Heart Federation celebrates World Heart Day on the 29th of September to raise awareness of the cardiovascular disease (CVD), the leading cause of death each year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a great deal of stress in the past year for many people. Changes in daily life, working from home and juggling personal obligations have been complex for some. The COVID-19 virus has also caused long-term stress for some people due to their financial situation and social unrest in our country.

Broken heart syndrome/Stress Cardiomyopathy is an ailment due to sudden emotional or physical stress, quickly causing irreversible cardiovascular diseases. Studies found that stress cardiomyopathy increased significantly during the pandemic, occurring more than four times as frequently as usual.

Physical and mental stress, or long-term vs. short-term stress, have different effects on heart that toll the heart. Symptoms can persist for weeks after a patient has recovered. Due to concerns about COVID-19, some patients have delayed seeking medical attention for severe symptoms, putting their health at risk.

A JAMA study from last year shows more than 70% of patients with an infection have one or more heart-related symptoms.

How does stress increase the risk of heart diseases?

The body’s response to stress is supposed to protect it. However, if it persists, it can be harmful. Cortisol is a stress hormone that is released in response to a stressful situation. Research suggests that high cortisol levels from long-term stress can increase blood cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar, and blood pressure and lead to changes in the arteries that promote plaque buildup.

However, even minor stress can lead to heart problems like poor blood flow to the heart muscle. As an impact, the heart does not receive enough blood or oxygen. In addition, long-term stress can have an impact on the clotting process. This increases the blood’s stickiness and risks of stroke.

Symptoms:

  • Chest pain/tightness
  • Fluttering of the heart and palpitations
  • Dizziness/fainting spells
  • Shortness of breath

Treating stress cardiomyopathy:

If broken heart syndrome is diagnosed, pain medications or oxygen to help relieve the symptoms can be prescribed for a short period in order to help the heart pump more efficiently. Most of the symptoms should go away on their own within two to three days of the onset. In about a week, the heart will be back to normal.

stress cardiomyopathyWorld Heart Day 2021
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