Lovesickness: The Most Common Form of Heart Disease

Detail of a miniature of the lover telling of his love to his lady in a garden.  - British Library Harley 4431 f.376Lovesickness: The Most Common Form of Heart Disease

Dzaja, Nancy

The University of Western Ontario Medical Journal, Vol.78:1 (2008)

Abstract: As Astrophil pines for his Stella in Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet, he describes the physical symptoms of his infatuation which point to a rampant case of lovesickness. In addition to its common presence in works of literature, lovesickness has been described as an actual medical entity with a specific etiology, pathogenesis, and treatment. Amazingly, many of the described symptoms of lovesickness are consistent across time and place, including fever, agitation, loss of appetite, headache, rapid breathing, and palpitations. On the other hand, other aspects of the disease and its care differ tremendously depending on the cultural context.Lovesickness (also known as lover’s malady, mal de ojo, mal amor, amor heroes, inordinate love, or philocaptio) had a variety of proposed etiologies. In the Middle Ages it was often attributed to love philters and demons, while the ancient Nahua of Mexico thought it had to do with the evil eye. The disease had serious consequences: failure to treat an afflicted patient could result in losing one’s genitalia, death, or eternal damnation. Treatments were creative and varied widely, from herbal remedies to the prescription of sexual intercourse, to drinking water that had been boiled in the desired person’s underwear. Lovesickness is a disease that permeates medical literature since the time of Hippocrates, and may still have a place in modern medicine in the form of somatoform disorder, bipolar disorder, or erotomania.


In a case description, the physician Erasistratus (4th century BC) is called to the bedside of Prince Antiochus, who is extremely ill. On examination, the prince is weak, emaciated, and near death, and no one understands why. As Erasistratus feels Antiochus’ wrist, he realizes that the prince’s pulse quickens and he becomes flushed when his stepmother Stratonice enters the room. Erasistratus realizes that Antiochus is suffering from lovesickness, and tells King Seleucus, who gives his wife to his son. Similar stories are attributed to Hippocrates and Galen. Indeed, lovesickness is a disease that permeates medical literature and the ability to diagnose it was the sign of a great physician. Descriptions of the disease have changed extensively over hundreds of years and it may exist today in the guise of psychiatric disorders.


The signs and symptoms of lovesickness (also known as lover’s malady, mal de ojo, mal amor, amor heroes, inordinate love, or philocaptio) are often consistent regardless of time or culture. Lovesickness involves fixation on a person: the afflicted individual has obsessive thoughts about the object of their fixation.Insomnia, loss of appetite, hollowing of the eyes, anorexia, pallor, rapid pulse, and jaundice are consistently described.


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