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Panic Attacks vs Heart Attacks - The Key Differences

written by: Keren Perles • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 9/21/2010

If your loved one complains of sudden chest pains, dizziness, and a tingling feeling, how should you know whether they're experiencing a panic attack or a heart attack? Read on to learn about differences between panic attacks and heart attack symptoms.

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    Difference in Causes

    To understand panic attacks vs. heart attacks and the differences between them, it is important to consider the causes of each. Many heart attacks are caused by a buildup of plaque on the inside of coronary arteries (arteries leading to the heart). When some of the plaque erupts, it can cause a blood clot to form. The clot can become big enough to block the movement of the blood through the artery, which deprives the person's heart of fresh blood from that artery. This blockage, and the symptoms that it causes, are known as a heart attack.

    A panic attack, on the other hand, is caused by the body activating its "fight or flight response" without logical provocation. Although scientists do not know why people develop these panic attacks, there does seem to be some sort of genetic component that can be triggered based on the situations that people find themselves in. Some have hypothesized that nutritional deficiencies, such as low levels of zinc or magnesium, could contribute to panic attacks. Panic attacks are not caused by any changes in the circulatory system, however, and are therefore extremely different from heart attacks.

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    Difference in Symptoms

    Many people may confuse panic attacks and heart attacks because of the similarity in their symptoms. For example, both of these conditions lead to rapid or difficult breathing, chest pain, and heart palpitations. They may also lead to increased perspiration, dizziness and nausea, a depressed or nervous feeling, burning in the chest area, a severe case of indigestion, and the onset of fatigue. However, there are some differences in symptoms that can allow you to differentiate between the two.

    Panic attack vs. heart attack symptoms

    1. The location of pain during the attack is important to identify. During a heart attack, the pain may spread to the left arm, neck, or back, but during a panic attack, the pain is usually focused directly on the chest.
    2. Although people experiencing both types of attacks may feel tingling, it is usually confined to the left arm during a heart attack.
    3. Hyperventilation before the attack will usually point to a panic attack.
    4. If the person experiencing the attack vomits, it is likely a heart attack; vomiting is rare during a panic attack.

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    Effects on the Heart

    A heart attack definitely weakens a person's heart, making it more vulnerable to future heart attacks and to other heart problems. This is one reason why people with panic attacks become nervous that they have really experienced a heart attack. But does a panic attack also harm the heart?

    Surprisingly, panic attacks may actually help the heart in the short term. In fact, they act similarly to cardio exercise, increasing the person's heart rate and helping blood vessels to expand. At the same time, the stress that often goes with panic attacks is never good for a person's heart, especially if it becomes chronic.