Aug 10, 2021 Is It a Heart Attack or Panic Attack?

It's Essential to Let Experts Make the Call

Lauren Trattner, DO
Lauren Trattner, DO

Chest pain, shortness of breath, chills: Are these symptoms of a heart attack or a panic attack? The two can appear so similar that sometimes even health professionals can’t be sure which one a patient is experiencing until they do the proper medical tests, such as an EKG (electrocardiogram), blood test or chest X-ray, according to Lauren Trattner, DO, Assistant Director of the Emergency Department (ED) at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) Rahway.

“Patients have come to the ED absolutely sure they’re having a heart attack, only to discover that they’re actually suffering from a panic attack— and the reverse is true, too,” Dr. Trattner says. “The important thing is that they came into the ED rather than ignoring those symptoms or trying to treat them at home.”

Similar Signs

A list of the symptoms that are common to the two conditions helps explain the confusion. People suffering from either a heart attack or a panic attack may experience the following:

  • Chest pain
  • Pounding heart
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness/lightheadedness
  • Sweating/chills
  • A tingling sensation
  • A fear of dying or feeling of impending doom

A heart attack is caused by a blockage in a coronary artery that cuts off blood flow to the heart. The cause of panic attacks is unclear, though they may relate to major emotional stress or be part of a larger anxiety disorder. Heart attacks tend to be preceded by warning signs and symptoms, such as recurring chest pain, while panic attacks come on suddenly.

Both men and women can suffer from heart attacks and panic attacks that are difficult to distinguish, but the two conditions are easier to confuse in women. “That’s because men’s heart attack symptoms tend to be more classic—chest pain under the breast bone, pain radiating to the left arm,” explains Dr. Trattner. Women may also experience these symptoms, but some may not have chest pain at all.

The most important takeaway, says Dr. Trattner, is that no one should ignore chest pain or any other symptoms of a possible heart attack, regardless of what they think might be happening. “If men or women are having any of these symptoms, we want them to be seen,” says Dr. Trattner. “If someone is concerned, if they don’t feel right, if they’re experiencing symptoms they’ve never had before, they should come to the ED and let us do the evaluation. If it’s a heart attack, we have all the tools to treat you. And if you’re having a panic attack, we can refer you to a behavioral health specialist. We’re open 24/7, and we’re here to help.”

Whoever your heart beats for, our hearts beat for you. To connect with a top cardiovascular specialist at RWJUH Rahway, call 888-724-7123.