Panic attacks are horrible to experience, but they've always been considered physically harmless. However, European researchers have discovered a link between panic attacks and increased risk of heart attack. So, should people who get panic attacks be worried?
There are a number of reasons not to worry unduly. Firstly, the risk only shows up for people under the age of 50. That's probably because other factors such as high blood pressure and cholesterol levels become more important as we get older. So for people with panic attacks over 50, there's no increased risk.
For people under 50, there seems to be a real increase in risk. But although that sounds alarming, the overall risk of heart attack for people age below 50 is still very low. Only one of 1000 under-50s who get panic attacks will have a heart attack in any given year. That's almost double the risk for people without panic attack, but it's still pretty low.
Also, we don't know why there's a link. It's partly explained by the fact that people with panic attacks are more likely to smoke, to have had depression and to drink alcohol heavily. The remainder of the link might be explained by doctors wrongly attributing early signs of heart problems to panic attack. Or there might be something about panic attacks that puts extra stress on the heart. We don't know enough to tell at this stage.
What you need to know. The important thing is to get checked out by a doctor if you've had signs of a panic attack. These include a racing heart, difficulties breathing, chest pain, sweating, feeling dizzy and trembling, all while feeling intense and sudden fear. The doctor can make sure they're not signs of heart trouble. And you can get treatments for panic attacks (subscribers only), including talking treatments and medications.
—Anna Sayburn, patient editor, BMJ Group
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If you think you think you have panic disorder, but aren't sure, read more on other conditions that cause symptoms similar to panic disorder and learn what questions to ask your doctor. And if you get panic attacks, find out how cognitive behavorial therapy can help (subscribers only).