October 01, 2019

Panic attack or heart attack?

Telling the difference

You were certain you were having a heart attack. After you narrowly missed hitting that deer with your car, a sudden and intense bout of chest pain, shortness of breath and shakiness left you pulling off the road and calling for help. But testing done in the emergency department revealed no issues with your heart.

After some questions about your symptoms, the doctor suggested a likely source: a panic attack. While these two types of health events can feel similar, they're managed very differently.

Similar symptoms

A heart attack occurs when coronary arteries that supply the heart with blood become narrowed from the buildup of fat, cholesterol and other substances — a process called atherosclerosis. Most heart attacks involve chest discomfort, such as an uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain. Other heart attack signs and symptoms include shortness of breath, cold sweats, nausea, lightheadedness and discomfort in other areas of the upper body, such as the arm, neck or jaw.

People commonly link chest pain and other symptoms to a heart attack and may fear the worst if the symptoms come on intensely or abruptly. But you may experience many of the same sensations with a panic attack. In addition to a sometimes-overwhelming anxiety or fear, a panic attack may also cause physical signs and symptoms such as:

  • A pounding or racing heart
  • Sweating or chills
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Breathing problems
  • Dizziness or weakness
  • Tingly or numb...