Laboring over lost love

February 12, 2005

JUST IN TIME for Valentine's Day, when the crush of love - or of the remembrance of loves past - is rekindled by media and social attention, we learn that the body, too, soars and suffers. Watch out.

It doesn't fall to pieces, but the healthy human heart does show physical evidence of a painful breakup. Scientists at Johns Hopkins medical school used the latest in body-scanning techniques on 19 deeply stressed emergency-room visitors whom they suspected of having heart attacks. The patients felt pain in their chests, were short of breath and showed fluid in their lungs, classic heart attack symptoms, but didn't show any blocked arteries or coronary disease. Their brain scans showed less blood flowing through areas thought to control motivation and attention and more to areas associated with grief; ultrasounds showed abnormal rhythms in the top half of the heart, as if it were stunned.

Many of the patients were grieving over the death of a husband, parent or child; others found their hearts aflutter after a fierce argument, court appearance, important speech, car accident or surprise party. All recovered within a few days, their hearts and brain chemicals returning to normal readings with little more than bed rest - time heals - though the researchers warned that the condition was severe enough in the short term to potentially be fatal.

The Hopkins researchers suspect that this "broken heart" syndrome is more common than doctors realize, The Sun's Michael Stroh reported last week. Since their report hit the presses, they've heard of two other research teams also confirming what we anecdotally know to be true: Sometimes, love hurts. It's not such a surprise, considering the rich physical vocabulary people have used down the centuries to describe the painful side of this many-splendored emotion: state of shock, weak with loss, can't breathe, an icicle through the heart. But it's somehow reassuring to know for sure it's not all in our heads.

It's also a reminder that pocket-protectored lab coat wearers are people, too. The Hopkins researchers were spurred by a colleague's response to breaking up, as well as the availability of new, clearer brain-scanning technology. Will an intrepid scientist, seeking a sign that another really cares - that she really did hurt him - next develop a portable version to test her theory?

It would be harder to test if the opposite were true - if being in love causes a person's heart to beat more rhythmically, her breath to deepen, though there are plenty of romance novels making that argument.

Of course, their study has a direct medical benefit, too - doctors will better distinguish heart attacks from temporarily stunned hearts, and give the more intense treatment to the more serious patients. Counselors, too, can be on the lookout for physical signs of internal sorrow.

Besides the nonstop songs sung blue playing on the iPod, that is.

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