Author Beware: Delusional Diagnosis (2/2)

Last post, I discussed the issue of heart palpitations and how, in isolation, they can be benign and not representative of heart disease.

The line in this particular published novel that did get my ire up is shortened as follows: “Any experience terrifying enough to cause a panic attack, in extreme circumstances, causes an arrhythmia. That’s a heart attack.”

Really? No. There’s a lot medically wrong with this sentence.

First, in very general terms, a heart attack is caused from lack of oxygen to the heart muscle, generally from a clot in an artery that feeds blood to the heart– your coronary arteries. When the heart muscle is not getting oxygen, it becomes irritable. One interesting thing about your heart is that each cell can generate an electrical current that will contract heart muscle. It generally does not do this due to the over-riding normal pacemaker. However, when oxygen is cut-off and the heart cells become irritable, they can begin to fire outside the normal conduction system.

When this happens, the medical team begins to see aberrant beats. But see, the heart attack itself generally causes the arrhythmia, not the other way around.

Let’s stay on track with this character. A healthy, college age woman. The incidence of actual heart disease is going to be low. What causes chest pain during a panic attack? Generally, the heart rate may be faster than usual. However, the truly rapid heart beat of SVT (more on that later) I would say is rare and would point away from the mind and more to the conduction system in the heart.

The last thing to consider is that people who have true heart arrhythmias, may have structurally fine hearts. Meaning the muscle, valves, and coronary arteries are good. Just the conduction system is a little funky.

My advice for authors– don’t make blanket medical statements. Just like they taught you in school– sentences that have all, every, etc… are likely the wrong answer.

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