Sudden emotional stress can cause Broken Heart Syndrome, a severe but reversible heart muscle weakness that mimics the symptoms of a classic heart attack.
People with broken heart syndrome usually have an intensely stressful physical or emotional event right before having heart-attack-like symptoms.
Priscilla Russell said she experienced it a few years a few years ago after her husband, Jim, had a heart attack and was rushed to Arlington Memorial Hospital, Texas Health Arlington. Then, in the emergency room, something happened to Priscilla.
"I went outdoors with my friend, and I no sooner went outdoors than i passed out right on the cement out there," she said.
It seemed she was having a heart attack, too. But Russell said it brought on by the stress from earlier in the evening.
"The difference is when these people are taken to the cath lab, the arteries are normal," said Dr. Timothy Hadden, of Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth. "And so with a typical heart attack, in the cath lab you expect to find an artery with a blood clot with no flow, and in these people, the flow is perfectly fine."
The patients are usually older women, perhaps after their house burns down or a loved one dies. Or like Nancy Eller, they experience it after getting a frightening medical diagnosis.
Eller had what's called an "eye stroke," and temporarily lost vision in one eye. A few days later, she went to the hospital with chest pain.
"I said, 'I think I'm having a heart attack,'" Eller said. "I was hurting so bad."
"They were sure I had a heart attack, because all the symptoms and all the tests showed that the enzymes and whatever," Eller said. "Then I got up there and no blockage."
Eller said she finds the broken heart diagnosis amusing.
"I thought that's an old tale, you know," she said.
Broken heart syndrome is rarely fatal, but doctors say it must still be treated quickly.