Am I having a panic attack or a heart attack? – The question has certainly interrupted the racing minds of people who have experienced a cluster of symptoms including discomfort in the chest, increased sweating, dizziness, shortness of breath and trembling.
Medical tests are the only way to confirm the type of attack as there are no single defining characteristics that can surely determine either one. But understanding the context, the symptoms, and the risk factors can always provide clues.
Panic attacks are a characterising feature of panic disorders, but they can also be tied to other psychological conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or social anxiety disorder.
So while mental health is the main risk factor for panic attacks, physical health plays a bigger role in the case of heart attacks. Factors can include age, cholesterol levels, body weight, blood pressure, diet etc.
Many doctors note the nature of the pain may help determine what kind of attack it has been induced by. Sharp chest pain or pain localised to one small area are linked to panic attacks. This ‘stabbing’ pain usually lasts for 5 to 10 seconds.
Patients who are having a heart attack often report more of a pressure than a pain, according to Dr MaryAnn McLaughlin, a cardiologist at Mount Sinai, New York. The feeling is compared to wearing a really tight bra or as though the chest is being pressed by something.
“There are certain heart attacks that feel like very strong pain. But in general, they start out as a pressure and sometimes a squeezing sensation that can go down either arm,” she explained.
The length of the attacks is also one of the key differences between the two. While panic attacks last under 10 minutes, heart attacks will usually go on for longer. If you experience the aforementioned symptoms for more than 5 minutes, calling an ambulance is recommended.
Studies have also shown heart attacks often accompany heavy physical exertion or the feeling of being very angry or upset. For instance, someone on the older side and is not used to exercising may be at risk after performing a demanding physical activity.
“A heart attack is less likely to happen out of the blue than to happen to someone who’s shoveling snow, or running up a flight of stairs, for example,” McLaughlin added.
In contrast, panic attacks can occur during an anxious state as well as a calm state.
But if you are still unsure of their symptoms in the middle of an attack, it is better to seek prompt medical attention. Health professionals caution the fact that heart attack signs can be missed, particularly among women.
“Women, especially, often miss the signs of a heart attack, thinking it is just stress or other causes,” said Dr Steve Marso, medical director of cardiovascular services at HCA Midwest Health. “Don’t delay. Only through medical tests can we rule out the possibility of a heart attack. And if it is a heart attack, you’ll be in the right place to get the emergency treatment you need for the best outcome.”
Source: Medical Daily