Doctor investigating heart, emotional ties

June 14, 2010
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The ancient Roman physician Galen identified the heart as the seat of emotion.

Now Grand Rapids’ Dr. Jim Fritz, an interventional cardiologist for West Michigan Heart, is looking into the scientific connection between the heart and emotion.

Fritz has a special interest in “broken heart syndrome,” or apical ballooning, a disruption in the heart’s normal beating pattern that is usually caused by a sudden emotional shock.

In this type of cardiomyopathy, the heart balloons out as it beats and a bulge develops at the base. The shape of the heart is distinctive, “almost like you squeeze the balloon in the middle,” Fritz said earlier this year.

Patients experience symptoms similar to a clot-caused heart attack, he said, such as chest discomfort and shortness of breath. The heart usually improves in five to seven days, although a small percentage of patients go into cardiac arrest.

“It’s a totally reversible problem, which makes it very unique,” Fritz said. “There’s a lot of unknowns with this.”

The syndrome happens only in women and usually after a sudden emotional shock, Fritz said. “The most common is the witnessed death of a close person. It’s been reported with both sad events and, then, even with kind of happy events like surprise birthday parties and family reunions. But it’s usually an acute emotional overload. It’s happened with public speaking,” Fritz said.

“For some reason, this almost universally happens in women. In fact, I’ve only seen it happen in women.”

Fritz said he first encountered “broken heart syndrome” while on a fellowship at the University of Rochester, where he encountered an expert in psychosocial medicine.

“Then, when I first started in practice, within the first month, I saw four people that had this syndrome. I thought, ultimately, this was going to be a mission for me in my career,” he said.

Fritz said broken heart syndrome happens most commonly in spring and summer. His goal is to find a way to treat the syndrome within the first few days that it appears.

“If you could find an acute treatment for it to normalize suddenly, that would be great,” he said.

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