Heart attack vs. panic attack: What is the difference?

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Experiencing a sudden chest pain can be alarming, and it’s often difficult to tell whether it’s a heart attack or a panic attack because they share similar symptoms.

However, understanding the differences between the two can help in seeking the right treatment promptly and possibly save lives.

This review explores the distinctions and similarities between heart attacks and panic attacks, providing insights backed by research to help you recognize what might be happening.

A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, occurs when blood flow to a part of the heart muscle is blocked for a long enough time that part of the heart muscle is damaged or dies.

This is most often caused by coronary artery disease, where the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle become hardened and narrowed.

Symptoms of a heart attack can include intense chest pain that may radiate to the arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach, shortness of breath, cold sweats, nausea, and a feeling of impending doom. The symptoms typically last longer than 20 minutes and do not improve with resting or breathing exercises.

On the other hand, a panic attack involves a sudden onset of intense fear or discomfort, which reaches a peak within minutes.

Symptoms can include palpitations, sweating, trembling or shaking, sensations of shortness of breath, feelings of choking, chest pain or discomfort, nausea or abdominal distress, feeling dizzy or faint, chills or heat sensations, numbness or tingling sensations, and a fear of losing control or dying.

While the symptoms are intense, panic attacks are not directly life-threatening.

Both conditions can trigger chest pain and breathing difficulties, which is why they are often confused with each other.

However, there are key differences in the symptoms and their onset that can help distinguish between them.

Heart attack pain is usually more localized and feels like a pressing or squeezing sensation, and it often worsens with physical activity. In contrast, panic attack symptoms can be triggered by stress or fear and are often accompanied by hyperventilation and a sense of severe anxiety rather than physical exertion.

Research has shown that individuals with panic disorder may be at a higher risk of developing coronary artery disease, making it even more critical to accurately distinguish between the two conditions.

A study in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that the physiological stress from recurrent panic attacks can contribute to the development of heart disease.

Diagnosing these conditions typically involves a physical examination, and in the case of a suspected heart attack, immediate medical testing such as an electrocardiogram (ECG) or blood tests to look for cardiac enzymes.

For panic attacks, the diagnosis is often made based on a psychological evaluation and the exclusion of physical health issues.

Treatment for heart attacks usually involves medication, lifestyle changes, and sometimes procedures to unblock arteries. For panic attacks, therapy, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy, and sometimes medication are the primary treatments.

In conclusion, while heart attacks and panic attacks can appear similar at first glance, they are fundamentally different conditions with distinct causes and treatments. Understanding these differences can help individuals seek the correct form of help when needed.

If you’re unsure whether you’re experiencing a heart attack or a panic attack, it’s crucial to err on the side of caution and seek immediate medical attention. This decision could be lifesaving, particularly in the case of a heart attack.

If you care about heart health, please read studies that vitamin K helps cut heart disease risk by a third, and a year of exercise reversed worrisome heart failure.

For more information about heart health, please see recent studies about supplements that could help prevent heart disease, stroke, and results showing this food ingredient may strongly increase heart disease death risk.

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