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Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder characterized by unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear. The fear is accompanied by physical symptoms that may include chest pain, heart palpitations, sweating, shortness of breath, dizziness, or abdominal distress. These sensations often mimic symptoms of a heart attack or other life-threatening medical conditions.

Many people with panic disorder also experience feelings of anxiety between episodes of panic. It is not unusual for a person with panic disorder to develop phobias about places or situations where panic attacks have occurred, such as in supermarkets or other everyday situations. As the frequency of panic attacks increases, the person often begins to avoid situations where they fear another attack may occur or where help would not be immediately available. This avoidance may eventually develop into agoraphobia, an inability to go beyond known and safe surroundings because of intense fear and anxiety.

Heredity and other biologic factors, stressful life events, and thinking in a way that exaggerates normal bodily reactions are all believed to play a role in the onset of panic disorder. The exact causes of panic disorder are unknown and are the subject of intense scientific investigation.

About 6 million American adults have panic disorder. Women are twice as likely as men are to develop panic disorder. Panic disorder typically strikes in the late teen years or young adulthood. Roughly half of all people who have panic disorder develop the condition before age 24.

Panic disorder can coexist with other disorders, most often depression and substance abuse. Appropriate diagnosis and treatment of other disorders, such as substance abuse or depression, are important to successfully treat panic disorder.

References:

Panic disorder. National Institute of Mental Health website. Available at: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/anxiety-disorders/panic-disorder.shtml. Updated January 23, 2009. Accessed March 25, 2009.

Last reviewed November 2012 by Rimas Lukas, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.