Heart Problems and Panic Attacks: Key Differences to Tell Them Apart

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You are having chest pains and difficulty breathing. Your body is drenched in sweat and you feel nauseous. You think it is a heart attack, but the emergency room personnel assure you it is only a panic attack. This situation is not that uncommon. Panic attacks and heart attacks are often confused because they share many of the same symptoms. Up to 25% of people admitted to the emergency room with chest pain are diagnosed with a panic attack. Because the two are so similar, it is important to seek medical attention to rule out any heart conditions.

Panic Attacks and Heart Problems - the Confusion

Heart attacks and panic attacks are often confused because they share many of the same symptoms. Both episodes cause chest pain, nausea, tingling, sweating, and shortness of breath.

Key Differences

  • Heart attacks are brought on by stress or exertion exasperating underlying cardiovascular issues, while panic attacks occur from stressful situations. However, panic attacks can happen out of the blue, even without feeling stressed.
  • Chest pain with a panic attack generally occurs as a sharp, piercing pain that can come and go with tingling in the body. The pains can be located anywhere in the chest and even move around during the attack. The pain is not as severe as with a heart attack. Chest pain with a heart attack is a constant pain that feels like your chest is being crushed. The pain can radiate into the arms, jaw and neck.
  • Both a heart attack and a panic attack can cause nausea. However, the nausea with a heart attack can lead to vomiting and diarrhea which do not occur with a panic attack.
  • Tingling throughout the entire body is common with panic attacks. In a heart attack, tingling and numbness is generally limited to the left arm, jaw and neck.
  • Both a panic attack and a heart attack can cause difficulty breathing. With a heart attack it is from the pain, while the panic attack can cause hyperventilating due to breathing too quickly from panic.
  • Panic attacks often make you feel out of control and trapped or confused. You feel like your heart is beating out of control. With heart attacks you generally focus on the pain and nothing else.
  • You can lose consciousness during a heart attack, but not during a panic attack.
  • A panic attack can be over in less than ten minutes, but a heart attack can continue for hours.

Heart attacks and panic attacks have many similar symptoms. The differences can be very subtle, and during an attack it is hard to think rationally. Both panic attacks and heart attacks are scary situations for different reasons, especially if you are having trouble determining what kind of attack it is. If you are unsure, it is best to seek emergency medical attention.