Consider this: a person, upon hearing bad news, starts to palpitate, clutches his/ her heart and starts to choke. Now, as a person in front of him/her, you’re tasked with determining whether this was a heart attack or a panic attack. Hard to differentiate, right? You’re not alone, considering that many will fail to do so, because as different as these two are in approach and physiological conceptuality, the way they manifest themselves is eerily similar, and can lead one to wonder: what is the difference between panic attack and heart attack?

The difference between heart attack and panic attack is something that only the well-educated or well-versed can decipher; as similar as they may seem, there are always markers and symptoms that differ between the two. We will discuss these differences, as well as descriptions of the two attacks; why they happen, when they happen and what should you do when either one presents itself.

The important thing here is that both are treatable and while heart attacks are sometimes considered unrecoverable, with the right first-aid medication and treatment, heart attacks are fast becoming something that is more recoverable and a peaking recovery rate.

Whereas panic attacks are not a medical emergency or any issue to warrant first aid medication, but can become a problem should they persist for longer, and the frequency too is increased. One of the basic differences is that a heart attack is a physiological problem (cardiac arrest), whereas a panic attack has more to do with the nervous system, which means that treatment for both is obviously different and the implications too, are different.

Let us first understand what a heart attack and a panic attack are separately, and then we’ll uncover the differences they both have. There are many, let’s get into it.

What is a Heart Attack?

A heart attack, medically known as a myocardial infarction, is the event where muscle death causes the heart to stop functioning. To further elaborate, a heart attack occurs when the heart tires itself out, over-exerting to pump blood all over the body. This over-exertion occurs when a part of the heart muscle, or cardiac muscle, dies due to lack of oxygen and blood supply to itself (coronary arteries nourish the cardiac muscles with oxygen-rich blood), causing the heart attack. While a heart attack occurs when the heart starts to flare pain and cease functioning, the basis for this is set when the coronary artery has increased deposits of fats and cholesterol in it, causing blood supply to wean off slowly. 

A heart attack is a serious and critical medical event, and rapid and effective first-aid is crucial for the survivability of the patient. There is usually a window of only about five minutes to ten minutes where from the lack of blood and oxygen, the critical organs (brain, lungs, liver) start to shut off and cease functioning, after which reviving a person gets really difficult, and organ damage can make it rather futile to attempt to revive an individual.

Considering the importance of the heart as a critical organ in the human body, no affliction of it should be taken lightly, unfortunately heart attacks are some of the more common afflictions overall to affect people both in the developed and the developing world. Killing around 18 million people a year, the dangers and the risks a heart attack poses are far too great to be ignored and as such, medical attention should be prompt and effective.

Medical attention and first aid responders start by giving the person going through a heart attack a nitroglycerine pill or aspirin (although the latter is more recommended). This allows the heart to continue functioning and the blood to keep flowing. Chest compressions can be used to restart the heart, and oxygen should be supplied manually until proper medical care can be given.

ALSO READ: How Long Does It Take For a Heart Attack To Happen?

What is a Panic Attack?

A panic attack, on the other hand, is a sudden feeling of overwhelming panic and anxiety, that can cause some problems with breathing and thinking in individuals that do suffer from it. It is purely a psychological issue, considering that the root cause of a panic attack lies within the brain’s ability to respond to traumatic or unsettling stimuli. No physiology or other bodily organ is involved in it, although a panic attack may cause the brain to limit breathing, which could cause problems and complications. 

A panic attack, as opposed to a heart attack, is not a medical emergency and never reaches a critical point. However, panic attacks, that increase in both frequency and duration, can be a problem since they can interrupt the functioning of a normal lifestyle and can dramatically worsen the quality of life.

Panic attacks usually present themselves whenever a stimulus is presented; the stimulus does not actually have to be shocking or worrying, since there are instances of people having panic attacks after receiving good news. Basically, whatever the mind cant seem to comprehend immediately, is prime grounds for a panic attack. Lasting anywhere from 30 seconds to several minutes at a time, panic attacks are characterized by their likeness to the symptoms presented by a patient undergoing a heart attack.

However, there is a difference: panic attack vs heart attack symptoms are different, but to the untrained, they can seem dangerously similar. Here are some key points that you can use to differentiate the two.

Difference Between Panic Attack And Heart Attack

difference between heart attack and panic attack

There are same basic differences that you can use to gauge the kind of attack a person might be having. This is also helpful for people who have experienced neither of these but want to be prepared in the case of any emergency. Let’s start,

  • Pain: The first indicator is pain. As stated beforehand, heart attacks are physiological whereas panic attacks are psychological, so pain descriptions will vary, giving you an idea what kind of attack it is. Heart attacks are characterized by radiating pains; pangs of pain starting from the left side of the chest and radiating towards the left shoulder, lower jaw and the left side of the body. Whereas in a panic attack, pain will be centralized in the chest area only and will not radiate.
  • Sensation of pain: Pain caused by a heart attack will be described as tight, squeezing sensation, whereas panic attacks will have stabbing pain effect and the pain associated with tachycardia (high rate of beats per minute).
  • Triggers and duration: The triggers for both attacks are different as well: physical exertion for heart attacks and emotional shocks for panic attacks. Similarly, if the pain fluctuates but does not actually end (for more than an hour), it might be a heart attack. If not, it is most probably a panic attack.