Dr. Roxanne Dryden-Edwards is an adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist. She is a former Chair of the Committee on Developmental Disabilities for the American Psychiatric Association, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and Medical Director of the National Center for Children and Families in Bethesda, Maryland.
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.
Generally, panic attacks are treated with reassurance and relaxation techniques. By definition, panic attacks last less than an hour, so many times a person already feels much better by the time he or she makes it to the doctor's office. Nevertheless, because the diagnosis is made by excluding more dangerous causes, people may be given medications during their attack.
If the doctor is suspicious of a cardiac (heart) cause, then the person might be given aspirin and various
blood pressure medicines. An IV line may be started and fluids given. Some doctors will prescribe various antianxiety medicines such as diazepam (Valium) or lorazepam (Ativan) during the evaluation.
Once the diagnosis of panic attack is made, however, the person may be surprised that no medicines are prescribed. Before medications are started, the person requires further evaluation by a mental-health professional to check for the presence of other
mental-health disorders. These may include anxiety disorders, depression, or panic disorder (a different diagnosis than panic attack).
If medications are prescribed, several options are available. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), selective serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SSNRIs), and the benzodiazepine families of medications are considered to be effective treatment of panic disorder. SSRIs include sertraline (Zoloft), fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil), citalopram (Celexa), escitalopram (Lexapro), and fluvoxamine (Luvox). SSNRIs include duloxetine (Cymbalta) and venlafaxine (Effexor). Clinical trials have shown SSRIs reduce the frequency of panic attack up to 75%-85%. SSRIs must be taken
three to six weeks before they are effective in reducing panic attacks and are taken once daily.
Beta-blocker medications like propranolol are sometimes used to treat the physical symptoms associated with panic.
Benzodiazepines are often used to provide short-term relieve of panic symptoms. Clonazepam (Klonopin) and lorazepam (Ativan) are examples of this group of medications. Although another benzodiazepine, alprazolam (Xanax), is often used to treat panic attacks, the short period of time that it works can cause the panic sufferer to have to take it multiple times each day. Benzodiazepines tend to be effective in decreasing panic attacks by up to 70%-75% almost immediately; however, they sometimes require taking up to
four times per day to be effective. Additional drawbacks include sedation, memory loss, and after several weeks, tolerance to their effects and withdrawal symptoms may occur.
Tricyclic antidepressants such as imipramine (Tofranil) and MAO inhibitors such as phenelzine (Nardil) have also been used, but many individuals experience side effects that are difficult to tolerate.
The person being treated will be closely monitored for the possibility of side effects that can range from minor to severe and can sometimes even be life-threatening. Because of the possible risks to the fetus of a mother being treated with medications for panic attacks, psychotherapy continues to be the treatment of first choice when treatment of this symptom is given during pregnancy.
Psychotherapy is at least as important as medication treatment of panic disorder. In fact, research shows that psychotherapy alone or the combination of medication and psychotherapy treatment are more effective than medications alone in overcoming panic attacks. To address anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy is widely accepted as an effective form of psychotherapy. This form of therapy seeks to help those with panic disorder identify and decrease the self-defeating thoughts and behaviors that reinforce panic symptoms. Behavioral techniques that are often used to decrease anxiety include relaxation and gradually increasing the panic sufferer's exposure to situations that may have previously caused anxiety. Helping the anxiety sufferer understand the emotional issues that may have contributed to developing symptoms is called panic-focused psychodynamic psychotherapy and has also been found to be effective.
Often, a combination of psychotherapy and medications produces good results. Improvement is usually noticed by about three months. Thus, appropriate treatment for panic disorder can prevent panic attacks or at least substantially reduce their severity and frequency, bringing significant relief to up to 90% of people with panic disorder.