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How a Panic Attack is Different from a Heart Attack

Instructor: Sharon Linde
Panic attacks and heart attacks have a lot of similar symptoms. This lesson goes over the differences between these two medical conditions so that you might be able to tell them apart.

Similarities Between Heart Attacks and Panic Attacks

Have you ever suddenly felt your heart beating quickly, experienced shortness of breath, felt nauseated and sweaty? These are symptoms of many things, most seriously a heart attack or panic attack. Neither are events to take lightly. How exactly are they the same? A heart attack is when the heart suddenly malfunctions; a panic attack is a sudden feeling of anxiety.

Heart attacks and panic attacks have many of the same symptoms: chest pain, shortness of breath, sweating, and nausea or vomiting. As a result, the conditions are often confused. Patients who experience these symptoms are likely to be made nervous by them, further intertwining the overlap of symptoms. Let's take a closer look at some of these symptoms in heart attacks and panic attacks.

Chest Pains

Although both panic attacks and heart attacks cause chest pain, the pain experienced from each has a different cause and location.

Panic attack chest pain is caused by an over-contraction of the muscles in the chest wall. Breathing and moving around can increase or decrease the pain experienced as more or less stress is being put on the muscles causing the pain. For these reasons, panic attack chest pain often seems to fluctuate, usually occurring in a very small, localized region of the chest without radiating outward.

Chest pain from heart attacks usually starts in the center of the chest, is often described as 'crushing' by victims, and tends to radiate out to the arms, shoulders, stomach, and back--more often to the left side of the body than the right. This type of pain is more intense and over a larger area than the pain associated with panic attacks. The maximum severity is reached after a few minutes, and changes in breathing or positioning have no effect on the amount of pain felt.

Nausea or Vomiting

One of the most confusing symptoms of both panic attacks and heart attacks is nausea. Most of us have felt sick to our stomach from time to time, and the symptom is easily explained by other circumstances. For example, heart attack victims who experience only nausea may blame the experience on overexertion or heat. The fact is, feeling nausea can sometimes be the only symptom of a heart attack.

But both panic attacks and heart attacks can cause nausea or vomiting, so how can a patient tell the difference? One way is to know that vomiting is much more likely to be caused by heart attacks than panic attacks.

Demographics

Who is impacted by panic attacks and heart attacks? While most of us recognize the health hazards leading to heart attacks--obesity, smoking, and stress--both conditions can affect people of different ages and health indications.

There is one predictable factor, though: Victims of panic attacks are generally under the age of 40, while heart attack victims are predominantly over 50, obese, or otherwise in poor health.

Losing Consciousness

Some patients who suffer heart attacks lose consciousness; the same can be true for panic attacks. Losing consciousness is an indication of a serious medical condition, and no matter what, the patient should seek immediate medical attention. Though the loss of consciousness can come from either a heart attack or a panic attack, it is much more likely to be caused by the former.

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