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Panic Attacks vs Heart Attacks

written by: RodneySouthern • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 7/15/2010

When comparing panic attacks vs heart attacks, how do people know the difference? This is a question that has troubled anxiety sufferers and medical personnel for years. Can you actually tell the difference between panic attacks and heart attacks?

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    Panic can be scary. One of the most difficult things that people with panic disorder face is understanding their symptoms. For example, when you experience a panic attack, you are likely to fear that you are dying. This is because the symptoms of panic attacks can very convincingly mimic symptoms of heart attacks and many other life threatening illnesses. Because chest pains and shortness of breath are such common complaints with panic attacks, the assumption that a heart attack is imminent is understandable. When comparing panic attacks vs heart attacks, there are some differences that stand out to help tell them apart.

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    Why Panic Attacks Seem Like Heart Attacks

    Panic attacks manifest themselves in many different ways, and can literally cause you to feel anything. Many people think that the symptoms are "in their head" or otherwise imagined and nothing could be further from the truth. The symptoms are real, but they are usually not caused by what is feared. This is the case when you fear a heart attack during a panic attack. With a panic attack you might feel the following symptoms that are similar to a heart attack:

    • Chest Pains
    • Shortness of Breath
    • Tingling in the Extremities, Face, or Body
    • Sense of Impending Doom
    • Dizziness

    All of these things are remarkably similar to the symptoms of a heart attack. When you really get out your microscope, however, you can see some clear differences.

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    Panic Attacks vs Heart Attack - Pain

    According to MentalNeurologicalPrimaryCare.org, the pain of a heart attack usually presents as a crushing pain that feels like someone is standing on your chest. With other causes, such as panic attacks, the pain is usually much more variable in nature. Panic attacks will present as a sharp or stabbing sensation. The pain with a heart attack also tends to be centrally located in the chest, and then can move to the left arm, back, shoulders or neck. Panic attacks usually involve pain that lingers over the heart, though it can mimic the movement into the arm, back and neck as well. Cardiac pain usually lasts longer than pain from a panic attack, as panic attack pain will often disappear after 15 minutes or so.

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    Panic Attacks vs Heart Attacks - Other Symptoms

    The other symptoms of panic attacks and heart attacks also appear similar on the surface, but have some minor differences. For example, many people experience a tingling sensation all over their bodies when they have a panic attack. Heart attacks usually only produce tingling in the left arm. Panic attack sufferers will often complain of nausea, but rarely will actually throw up or vomit. Heart attack victims are much more likely to vomit. Another key difference between heart attacks and panic attacks is the presence of hyperventilation. This results from quick breathing or breathing in too deeply and is a hallmark sign of panic attack. A heart attack can cause shortness of breath but this is very different from hyperventilation.

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    The Big Picture

    While certainly it is easy to confuse a panic attack for a heart attack, one should not rely solely on the information provided here for their safety. These are general guidelines and far from universally correct. A heart attack can act differently from the norm, and a panic attack can as well. Because of this, it is vital that you have yourself checked out if you are having heart attack symptoms right away.

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    Sources

    1) "Is Your Chest pain a Heart Attack or Something Else?" - Harvard Health Publications

    2) "Distinguishing between a panic attack and a heart attack" - Mental Neurological Primary Care

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    Image Credits

    Image credited to: Morguefile User hotblack @ Morguefile.com via free to use license.