People diagnosed with anxiety disorders like panic disorder often experience uncomfortable physical symptoms, including sweating, accelerated heart rate, shaking, and trembling. Given the severity of these physical symptoms, it’s not surprising that many people with panic disorder seek emergency medical care. One 2016 study reported that there were 1,247,000 anxiety-related ER visits annually.1
However, due to the complexity of the condition, the wide range of symptoms, and the similarity to other illnesses, panic disorder is often misdiagnosed in emergency rooms. Empower yourself by knowing these common physical symptoms and co-occurring conditions associated with panic disorder and anxiety.
Chest pain is one of the most frightening physical symptoms of panic attacks. This is also the symptom that most often sends people with panic disorder to the emergency room. When chest pain occurs during a panic attack, it’s not uncommon for the person to believe they are experiencing a medical emergency, such as a heart attack.1
Fortunately, panic attacks are typically not life-threatening. However, only a doctor or other medical professional is qualified to make a proper diagnosis and determine if a person’s chest pain is a symptom of a panic attack or is actually caused by a separate medical condition.
Shortness of Breath
Many people report that they find it difficult to breathe during a panic attack. Some describe it as a suffocating or smothering feeling; others say it’s more like a choking sensation. Regardless of how it’s described, shortness of breath can be a frightening experience, and one that may lead to a fear of fainting or even death. This, in turn only, heightens panic and anxiety.
Even though shortness of breath can be scary and upsetting, it’s often manageable with coping techniques, such as deep breathing exercises.
Headaches and Migraines
People with panic disorder are more prone to experiencing headaches. Additionally, those diagnosed with panic disorder have also been found to experience migraines and other severe headaches. Many people with panic disorder have reported that headaches and migraines often develop right after a panic attack.2
Treatment options for panic disorder and co-occurring headaches and migraines are available. Some medications used to treat panic disorder have been found to be a safe and effective way to also treat co-occurring headaches. However, some medications for panic disorder may actually contribute to headaches. Talk to your doctor about a treatment plan to help you manage both conditions.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a digestive disorder estimated in some studies to affect up to 20% of U.S. adults. The symptoms of IBS include bloating, frequent stomachaches, diarrhea, cramping, and constipation. Studies have found that IBS is more prevalent among people with anxiety disorders.3
Both IBS and panic attacks involve a great deal of anticipatory anxiety, feelings of embarrassment, and avoidance behaviors. IBS and panic disorder have both been found to respond favorably to medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of these two treatment options.
Muscle Pain and Tension
Experiencing frequent feelings of fear, worry, and anxiety can impact the body by contributing to muscle pain and tightness. Muscle tension is a common problem for people with panic disorder. Typically, muscles become tense during a panic attack and can cause feelings of stiffness throughout the body long after the attack has subsided.
Muscle pain and discomfort can often be managed through relaxation techniques. Exercises that can help calm and relax the body include breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization.
There are many self-help books that provide examples and instructions on these techniques. Yoga is an activity that includes many aspects of relaxation with the additional benefits of exercise for panic disorder.
Tiredness and Insomnia
Chronic worry, simply put, is exhausting, so it’s typical for people with anxiety disorders like panic disorder—which often creates a cycle of fear about having another panic attack—to be fatigued. Sometimes worry or other symptoms of anxiety make it difficult to fall or stay asleep.
In turn, this can take a toll on other aspects of physical and psychological well-being. For people experiencing even mild sleep disruptions, anxiety treatment is likely to involve changes to the bedtime routine.
A Word From Verywell
While anxiety conditions are very common, they often go undiagnosed or untreated. Because women are affected at approximately twice the rate of men, experts now recommend that girls and women over the age of 13 should be screened for anxiety as part of routine preventative healthcare.4 You should talk to your doctor if you are concerned about any of the symptoms of panic disorder or anxiety that you are experiencing.
If you or a loved one are struggling with panic disorder or anxiety, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.