‘Clinically awful’: why the pain of a broken heart is real

n the winter of 2004, women started arriving at Japanese hospitals complaining of chest pains and a shortness of breath. It was a month since a major earthquake had shaken the country, causing mudslides in the mountains, injuring 4,805 people and killing 68. In emergency rooms, doctors hooked the women up to ECG monitors, and saw the same extreme changes they’d expect with heart attacks. But subsequent tests showed their coronary arteries weren’t blocked, as they would be by a heart attack. Instead, their hearts had changed shape. It didn’t take long for these cases to be diagnosed as takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or “broken heart syndrome”.

Poets and songwriters have long known that love hurts, but now scientists are examining the physical anguish caused by a breakup – and the results are helping people understand and recover from their distress
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