How is panic disorder diagnosed?

Panic disorder can be difficult for health care providers to recognize. Physical symptoms can be very strong, so much so that many people with panic disorder believe they have a physical illness, such as heart disease.

If symptoms are present, the doctor will begin an evaluation by performing a complete medical history and physical examination. Although there are no laboratory tests to specifically diagnose panic disorder, the doctor might use various diagnostic tests to rule out physical illness as the cause of the symptoms.

If no physical illness is found, the person might be referred to a psychiatrist or psychologist, health care professionals who are specially trained to diagnose and treat mental illnesses. Psychiatrists and psychologists use specially designed interview and assessment tools to evaluate a person for panic disorder.

The doctor bases his or her diagnosis on the patient’s report of the intensity and duration of symptoms—including the frequency of panic attacks—and the doctor’s observation of the patient’s attitude and behavior. The doctor then determines if the patient’s symptoms and degree of dysfunction suggest panic disorder. The standard reference manual used for the diagnosis of recognized mental illnesses in the United States is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association.

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