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Which Is It? Heart Attack or Panic Attack

October 08, 2019
If you’re having a heart attack, it’s important to act quickly. But what if it’s a panic attack that will pass? Here’s help figuring out which type of attack you or someone near you is experiencing.
Heart Attack:
  • Chest pain
  • Spreading pain into your arms, shoulders, throat, jaw or back
  • Nausea, vomiting, indigestion, heartburn or stomach pain
  • Sudden fatigue, exhaustion, dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Cold sweat for no obvious reason
  • Shortness of breath
How it starts
Most heart attacks start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort that increases. Many people have warning signs in advance, such as recurring chest pain or pressure that may be relieved by rest.
However, some heart attacks strike suddenly and feel intense immediately, and may be triggered by physical exertion.
Type of pain
With a heart attack, the chest pain typically increases from mild to severe. It’s been described as a feeling of constant pressure or tightness, or a squeezing, burning or aching sensation. It can start in the center of the chest and then radiate to the arm, neck or shoulder blades, usually on the left side of the body.
How long it lasts
Heart attack symptoms tend to get worse as time goes on and last longer. The discomfort in the chest may be mild at first, but become extreme after several minutes — or it may go away and then return. If the pain is very brief (or in a spot that hurts more when you touch or push on it), it's probably not your heart.
Panic Attack:
  • Rapid, pounding heart rate
  • Sense of terror or loss of control, with fear of doom, danger or death
  • Numbness or tingling sensation in your hands and fingers
  • Sharp or stabbing chest pain
  • Feeling sweaty or having chills, trembling or shaking
  • Breathing difficulties, shortness of breath or tightness in your throat
How it starts
Panic attacks usually come on suddenly, without warning. They are often associated with stress and anxiety, and they can hit at any time — even when you’re sound asleep.
The terror felt during a panic attack may be unrelated to what is happening, and/or out of proportion to the actual situation.
Type of pain
During a panic attack, chest pain is typically sharp or stabbing and limited to the middle of the chest. For some people, the pain can be replicated or worsened by pressing the area, and relieved or aggravated when you change positions.
How long it lasts
Panic attacks are generally brief, peaking quickly and lasting less than 10 minutes for some — up to 20 to 30 minutes for others.
Any chest pain may only last 5 to 10 seconds. Other symptoms may last longer, and you may feel tired and worn out after they subside.
What to do
Don’t wait to get medical help. When in doubt, or if your symptoms seem severe and don’t go away after a few minutes, call 911 immediately.
Even if you believe it’s a panic attack but not a heart attack, you should still see a doctor as soon as possible — especially the first time. Although panic attacks are not dangerous, they put you at risk for future attacks and may get worse without treatment. And it’s smart to get a thorough physical evaluation to rule out other possibilities.