Is it a Heart Attack or Panic Attack?

Chest Pain From a Panic Attack Can Be Confused with a Heart Attack

black man with chest pain outside
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Panic disorder is characterized by recurrent and often unexpected panic attacks. Marked by intense emotional, cognitive and physical symptoms, panic attacks can be a terrifying experience. The symptoms of panic attacks vary for different people. However, some common symptoms of panic disorder include:

Chest pain is also a very common and frightening symptom of panic disorder. Chest pain associated with panic disorder can be so scary that the person may believe they are experiencing a medical emergency, such as a heart attack. Many people who experience chest pain will end up in the emergency room, often in fear that they are dying. Such fearful perceptions will likely increase the person’s panic and anxiety.

Causes of Chest Pain During Panic Attacks

Chest pain is often divided into cardiac or non-cardiac. Cardiac chest pain is caused by a lack of oxygen to the heart muscle. Known as ischemia, cardiac chest pain is experienced in a variety of ways, including tightening or pressure throughout the center of the chest. Other symptoms of cardiac chest pain include burning sensations in the chest area, and pain that may extend throughout the shoulders and abdomen.

Non-cardiac chest pain is typically caused by restriction in the throat or musculoskeletal system and is commonly associated with anxiety-related symptoms.

For instance, shortness of breath is a common symptom of panic attacks that often leads to hyperventilation. Hyperventilation has the potential to cause pain and cramping in the chest cavity. Non-cardiac chest pain is often described as a piercing, stabbing, or intense pain. For some people with panic disorder, chest pain may be caused by a combination of both cardiac and non-cardiac means.

Get Professional Help

Chest pain is one of the most common issues that cause people to seek immediate medical assistance. Some people who are rushed to the emergency room for chest pain may actually be experiencing a panic attack. It is not uncommon for panic disorder to go untreated or be misdiagnosed in these situations. Many people who experience panic attacks and chest pain will make frequent visits to the hospital before being properly diagnosed with panic disorder.

If you experience chest pain associated with panic disorder, it is important that you discuss this symptom with your doctor. Your doctor will be able to determine if the chest pain is only a symptom of your panic attacks or if there is another underlying medical condition. Research suggests an increase in certain medical illnesses, such as high blood pressure and heart disease, linked to panic attacks and panic disorder. Your doctor will be able to provide you with treatment options for panic disorder and any potential co-occurring condition.

Through professional help, you can become better equipped to manage your panic symptoms. Your doctor may recommend medication for panic disorder and additional treatment, such as individual psychotherapy or group therapy.

There are also many relaxation techniques that can help you cope with your panic attacks, stress, and other anxiety symptoms. Although the symptoms of panic disorder can be difficult to deal with, know that many effective and safe treatment options are available.


American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illnesses, 5th edition, 2013. 

Belleville, G. Folds-Busque, G., & Marchand, A. “Characteristics of Panic Disorder Patients Consulting an Emergency Department with Noncardiac Chest Pain” Primary Psychiatry, 35-42, 2010

Huffman, J.C., Pollack, M. H., & Stern, T. A. “Panic Disorder and Chest Pain: Mechanisms, Morbidity, and Management”  Primary Care Companion Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 54-62, 2002

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