How To Tell The Difference Between A Heart Attack And A Panic Attack

It can be hard to tell the difference between the two, but it’s vital you know so you can help the person as well as possible.

Either can happen anytime and anywhere to anyone and there are some distinct differences you can watch out for, despite deceiving similarities.  In a heart attack, for example, there is a prickly sensation in the left arm whereas in a panic attack the sensation spreads to the other arm, including fingers and legs.  However, keep in mind that the best option always is to seek medical help immediately in either case if you’re not sure as time is of the essence!

You can feel your heart racing as well as a stinging pain in the chest…  Is it a heart attack or….?

Symptoms shared by both conditions are heavy, uneven breathing, unbearable chest pain, an unpleasant prickly sensation, sweating and nausea.  To add to the confusion, a heart attack can also cause a panic attack and people may think it’s just a panic attack when it’s actually a much more alarming condition, a heart attack.

First, we take a look at what happens in a heart attack and how to recognize it.

  1. A heart attack – what happens?

The coronary arteries provide the muscles of the heart with a constant supply of oxygen-rich blood for the heart to work properly.  If, for any reason, the heart muscle does not get this critical blood supply, it becomes starved for oxygen and will eventually die, which leads to a heart attack.

In people with coronary artery disease, the arteries become narrow and blood isn’t able to flow as it should.  As a result, fatty matter, inflammatory cells, calcium, proteins and such build up along the artery walls and form plaque deposits, which are soft on the inside but hard on the outside.

The outer shell of hard plaque deposits eventually cracks (in medical terms, plaque rupture) and causes platelets (particles in blood which trigger clotting) to enter and blood clots to form.  If it happens that a blood clot blocks the artery completely, the heart muscle doesn’t get the necessary oxygen and starves.  Without oxygen, in a very short time, the heart muscle eventually dies, and this is a heart attack.

1 – b        Recognizing a heart attack

Tips on how to recognize a heart attack:

  • Survivors often describe constricting pain in the chest
  • As a rule, the pain always starts in the center of the chest and eventually may move down along the left arm and the back
  • Sometimes the pain spreads to areas of the teeth, jaws and neck.
  • Sometimes the intensity of the pain changes. It usually lasts for much more than five minutes but without affecting breathing
  • Usually there is a prickly sensation restricted to the left arm, very often combined with a cold sticky sweat, nausea and even vomiting.
  • At the peak of a heart attack, there is a feeling of fear focused singly on the pain in the chest, a belief they are dying which induces further anxiety and panic.
  • In addition to the above mentioned, individuals also often have rapid breathing, except when the heart attack leads to a panic attack.
  1. A panic attack – what happens?

A panic attack is when adrenaline suddenly floods your body for apparently no logical reason.  You can be sitting safely in your living room when you experience an inexplicable fear of something quite irrational, like falling off the edge of some cliff.

Suddenly your body is flooded with adrenaline and goes into a flight or fight mode.  You cannot run away from yourself and your fears so the first is out of the question.  So, your body gets all geared up for a fight.  This state sets off a whole chain of undesirable reactions that culminate in a huge panic attack.

The body immediately resorts to a primary survival method, that is your heart rate increases so as to get more oxygen- rich blood to muscles and limbs to provide them with energy.  That’s why people who suffer from panic attacks often report that their chests pound as if about to explode.  The sudden immediate rush of blood in turn stimulates your nervous system to be able to react faster, which causes your limbs to tremble uncontrollably.

As if that weren’t enough, all that adrenaline and the increase in your heart rate causes profuse perspiration and you find it almost impossible to catch your breath.  This shortness of breath is caused by the sudden greater need for oxygen because of the increase in heart rate together with the heavy flow of blood to extremities.

So, you start hyperventilating in the attempt to get more oxygen into the blood and become dizzy and disoriented.   Because you begin breathing out so much carbon dioxide, the brain gets muddled and cannot maintain the normal balance between carbon dioxide and oxygen and starts overdosing on oxygen, which causes lightheadedness.  This state can very often distort your brain’s perception of things and you get the feeling that the whole world’s closing in on you.

2 – b       Recognizing panic attacks

Tips on how to recognize a panic attack:

  • A panic attack can strike even in the most ordinary everyday circumstances
  • It usually takes around 10 minutes for the symptoms of most panic attacks to reach their peak
  • Pain is mostly concentrated in the chest area and it keeps rising then falling
  • A strange prickly sensation and numbness can be experienced although, unlike in a heart attack, it’s not only in the left arm but may be felt on the right arm, fingers and legs as well.
  • Irrational fears, such as feelings of suffocation or of going crazy, are experienced.
  1. Heart attack or panic attack – What to do

In both cases, waiting to see is not an option.  It doesn’t make a difference if it’s a heart attack or a panic attack that you’re suffering, you need to seek medical attention immediately.

If it does turn out to be a heart attack, not seeking and receiving medical help could have fatal consequences.  In the case of you yourself or anybody else experiencing the symptoms described above for longer than 4 to 5 minutes, call for an ambulance immediately or get someone to take the person suffering to a hospital as soon as possible.

If it is a panic attack, a lack of medical attention can intensify the symptoms and increase the frequency of such attacks.  Prompt examination and professional care will improve not only the quality of life but also life expectancy.


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