Diagnosing Panic Attacks and Co-existing Medical Conditions
People with recurrent panic attacks may have a medical condition called panic disorder. Panic disorder is diagnosed either after four panic attacks within four weeks or after one or more panic attacks followed by at least a month of persistent fear of having another one. A minimum of four of the symptoms listed in the previous section must have developed during at least one of the panic attacks.
Many people with panic attacks and panic disorder visit the emergency room repeatedly or see several doctors before they obtain a correct diagnosis. Some people with the condition may go for years without learning that they have a real, treatable illness.
The risk of developing panic disorder appears to be inherited. Not everyone who experiences panic attacks will develop panic disorder. For example, many people have one panic attack, but never have another one. For those who do have panic disorder, however, it's important to seek treatment. When left untreated, the disorder can become disabling.
Panic disorder is often accompanied by other serious conditions, such as depression, drug abuse, or alcoholism, and may lead to a pattern of avoiding places or situations where panic attacks have occurred. For example, if a panic attack strikes while you're riding in an elevator, you may develop a fear of elevators. If you start avoiding elevators, it could then affect your choice of a job or apartment, and greatly restrict other parts of your life as well.
Some people's lives become so restricted that they avoid normal, everyday activities, such as grocery shopping or driving. In some cases, they become housebound. Or, they may be able to confront a feared situation only if accompanied by a spouse or other trusted person.
Basically, these people avoid any situation in which they would feel helpless if a panic attack were to occur. When people's lives become so restricted, as happens in about one-third of people with panic disorder, the condition is called agoraphobia. Early treatment of panic attacks can often prevent agoraphobia from developing.