CINCINNATI—If you’re experiencing shortness of breath, heart palpitations, dizziness and nausea, you might think you’re having a heart attack.
It’s a good enough reason to head for the emergency room.
However, says William Levin, MD, associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of Cincinnati, it’s also possible you’re having what is known as a “panic attack,” a relatively harmless but unnerving condition caused by an abnormal neural response to stress.
Levin says the two are easily confused, because the symptoms of a panic attack closely mimic those of a heart attack. Classic panic episodes begin abruptly and are associated with intense fear. Chest pain is also a common complaint in panic attacks.
“Up to 30 percent of patients presenting with chest pain can be experiencing panic disorder,” Levin says, “and women are twice as likely as men to suffer from panic attacks.”
Panic attacks occur suddenly, and symptoms can last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour, much like a heart attack, Levin says. Other panic attack symptoms include:
· Abdominal cramping
· Chest pain
“If symptoms last more than five minutes or if the pain leaves and returns, it could be a heart attack or another medical condition, such as an overactive thyroid gland,” says Levin, a practicing physician with University Internal Medicine in Montgomery.
Because panic attack symptoms can mimic several serious medical conditions, you should see your doctor for a careful medical evaluation and testing if you experience them. The possibility of other medical illnesses must always be considered.
If in doubt, Levin says, contact your doctor immediately or go to the emergency room, at least until the symptoms are resolved.
Levin says that after appropriate evaluation, panic attacks can be treated with medication, self- care techniques such as regular exercise, and a healthy diet and cognitive behavioral therapy. Regular follow-up with your doctor is encouraged.
In addition to relieving distressing symptoms and worry, this also prevents over-utilization of health resources such as the emergency room.