How to Tell the Difference Between a Panic Attack
and a Heart Attack?
It’s not always easy to tell the difference between a panic attack and a heart attack since the symptoms can overlap. Even doctors can’t always immediately tell the two conditions apart. In a cruel twist, those who have panic disorder often have anxiety related to their health. They may be more likely to assume their chest pain is caused by a heart attack, which in turn ratchets up their anxiety levels even higher.
When in doubt about chest pain, call 911. If it turns out to be a panic attack and not a heart attack, rest assured you will not be the first person to be seen in an emergency department due to a panic attack that was mistaken for a heart attack.
There are some important indicators to look out for that help differentiate between a panic attack and a heart attack.
Chest pain due to heart attack typically escalates quickly, and is associated with pain, pressure or an ache in the chest. The pain often radiates to other areas, such as the arms (especially the left side), stomach, back, shoulders, neck, throat or jaw. Pain may worsen with exertion and be accompanied by shortness of breath. People having a heart attack may also feel nauseous and vomit.
Signs of a panic attack include a rapid heart rate and a sharp or stabbing pain in one area of the chest. The pain typically subsides after a few minutes. Unlike a heart attack, the pain may either get better or worse when you change positions, and doesn’t typically radiate to other parts of the body. Vomiting can also be a result of a panic attack, however vomiting is less common when experiencing a panic attack than a heart attack.
People also typically do not lose consciousness during a panic attack, which may occur during a heart attack. Panic attacks typically last only 30 minutes or less. Afterward, the individual may feel fatigued, but other than that is fine.
Another indication that the chest discomfort is due to a panic attack rather than a heart attack may be the age of the individual. Men and women tend to start experiencing panic attacks in their 20s, although some people may have their first panic attack in their teens while others not until their 30s. It is uncommon, though not unheard of, for people to have heart attacks in their 20s and 30s. Those who have heart attacks when they’re young usually have a previously diagnosed heart condition. The risk of heart attack is much higher in someone in their 50s, 60s and older.
Panic attacks are unpleasant but they do not cause long-term damage to physical health. People recover from panic attacks and they may never have another one. The same cannot be said for heart attacks. If you’re experiencing chest pain and you’re not sure of the cause, seek medical attention immediately. Getting treatment for a heart attack quickly can minimize damage to the heart muscle and potentially save your life.