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Panic disorder is characterized by the spontaneous and unexpected occurrence of panic attacks, the frequency of which can vary from several attacks a day to only a few attacks a year.

To meet the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR) criteria for panic disorder, panic attacks must be associated with more than 1 month of subsequent persistent worry about (1) having another attack, (2) consequences of the attack, or (3) significant behavioral changes related to the attack.

Panic attacks are a period of intense fear in which 4 of 13 defined symptoms develop abruptly and peak rapidly less than 10 minutes from symptom onset. To make the diagnosis of panic disorder, panic attacks cannot directly or physiologically result from substance use, medical conditions, or another psychiatric disorder.

The DSM-IV-TR delineates the following potential symptom manifestations of a panic attack:

  • Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sense of shortness of breath or smothering
  • Feeling of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
  • Derealization or depersonalization (feeling detached from oneself)
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Fear of dying
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
  • Chills or hot flashes

Panic disorder is usually qualified with the presence or absence of agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is defined as anxiety toward places or situations in which escape may be difficult or embarrassing.

These anxiety-provoking situations are avoided or are endured with anxiety. (Note: Agoraphobia is not a stand-alone disorder; it is a descriptive term [eg, panic disorder with agoraphobia.])

Frequency

United States: Lifetime prevalence estimates range from 1.5-5% for panic disorder and 3-5.6% for panic attacks.

Mortality/Morbidity

Significant comorbidities are associated with panic disorder. Panic disorder often coexists with mood disorders, with mood symptoms potentially following the onset of panic attacks. Lifetime prevalence rates of major depression may be as much as 50-60%. These patients may be at higher risk of suicide attempts. Alcohol and other substance use disorders are also frequent sequelae of panic disorder.

Medical conditions apparently share significant comorbidity with panic disorder. These conditions include cardiovascular disorders (eg, mitral valve prolapse, hypertension, cardiomyopathy) and other disorders (eg, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, irritable bowel syndrome, migraine headache). Aside from the significant psychological anguish of panic attacks, agoraphobia can result in numerous medical, social, and occupational consequences. These include increased health care use, social withdrawal and restricted role functioning, and decreased work productivity.

Race

Data on prevalence in different racial groups are inconsistent. Symptom manifestations may differ, with African Americans more often presenting with somatic symptoms and more likely seeking help in medical rather than psychiatric settings.

Sex

One-month prevalence estimates for women are 0.7% versus 0.3% for men (ie, women are more likely to be affected than men by a 2- to 3-fold factor).

Age

Panic disorder has a bimodal distribution, with highest incidence in late adolescence and a second peak in the mid 30s.

History

A sudden onset of a panic attack reportedly occurs with 4 (or more) of the 13 associated symptoms progressing to a peak within 10 minutes. Triggers and patterns help construct the differential diagnosis.
Unexpected panic attacks have no known precipitating cue; these panic attacks often support the diagnosis of panic disorder without agoraphobia.
Situationally bound (cued) panic attacks recur predictably in temporal relationship to the trigger; these panic attacks usually implicate a specific phobia-type diagnosis.
Situationally predisposed panic attacks are more likely to occur in relation to a given trigger, but they do not always occur. This pattern more likely describes panic disorder with agoraphobia.
Use of caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, or other substances can trigger or potentiate panic attacks.

Physical

No signs on physical or mental status examination are specific for panic disorder. The diagnosis is made primarily by history.

If the patient presents in an acute state of panic, he or she can physically manifest any anticipated sign of an increased sympathetic state. These nonspecific signs may include hypertension, tachycardia, mild tachypnea, and mild tremors. The attack lasts 20-30 minutes from onset-rarely more than an hour. Somatic concerns of death from cardiac or respiratory problems may be a major focus of patients during an attack. Patients may end up in an emergency department.

The Mental Status Examination may reveal an anxious-appearing person, although this is not required for diagnosis. Speech may reflect anxiety or urgency, or it may sound normal. Mood may be described as similar to “anxious,” with congruent affect. Incongruent affect should raise consideration for other diagnostic possibilities. Thought processes should be logical, linear, and goal directed. Thought content is particularly important to specifically assess in order to ensure a patient has no suicidal or homicidal thoughts. Acute anxiety, as a form of acute mental anguish, can lead to unsafe behavior, usually directed against the self. Abnormalities in thought process or thought content (aside from impulsive suicidal thoughts) should prompt reconsideration of other etiologies. Insight and judgment are usually present and intact

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