Panic Attacks and Mitral Valve Prolapse: A Mimicker’s Deception?

A mimicker is a symptom or disorder that fools its victim, as well as medical and psych professionals, into believing he/she is suffering from something other than the true cause of the problem. And the likeness is so striking that the mimicked issue gets all the attention, allowing the real culprit to remain a mystery. Obviously, mimickers can cause all sorts of confusion, as well as unnecessary pain and anguish. One of the major mimickers of panic attacks and panic disorder is mitral valve prolapse (MVP) and mitral valve prolapse syndrome (MVPS).

As always, let’s start with definitions. If the heart’s mitral valve is functioning properly, blood flows from the left atrium to the left ventricle in a very tidy manner. And that’s because blood is prevented from going back into the left atrium by a tight seal formed as the mitral valve closes. But if one has MVP the flaps of the mitral valve allow small amounts of blood leakage because the valve flaps don’t close evenly; one, or both, collapsing backward.

The physical manifestations of MVP may include heart palpitations, atrial fibrillation (the atria, the heart’s two small upper chambers, quiver instead of maintaining a normal rhythm, resulting in blood pooling and clotting because healthy pumping is interrupted – a stroke may ensue if a bit of blood clot breaks away and lodges in a brain artery), fainting, chest pain, and shortness of breath. MVP, a common and generally benign condition that presents in women three times more than men, is a genetic disorder typically confirmed by an echocardiogram. The only real potential for trouble is the very remote possibility of contracting an infection called endocarditis (an infection of the inner lining of the heart, the endocardium, and the possibility of blood clotting).

Now, here’s where things start to get panic-interesting. Just as a percentage of panic attack sufferers become panic disorder sufferers, so it is with MVP. Some 40% of patients with MVP also have something known as dysautonomia, an imbalance of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which would indicate neurotransmitter and hormonal confusion as well. Well, the ANS has two components, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system has the responsibility of ramping-up our biochemistry as our fight/flight response is switched on; and the parasympathetic nervous system returns our biochemistry to a state of normalcy as the threat is gone.

Indeed, an incredible number of bodily functions are directed by the ANS and when this system is out of balance the physiological results can be, as you may already know, panic attacks, anxiety, fatigue, migraine headache, irritable bowel syndrome, and many more little goodies. Well, when the situation becomes this complex one is said to suffer from mitral valve prolapse syndrome (MVPS). And it’s estimated that 40-60% of MVPS sufferers will experience panic attacks.

Are you saying to yourself, “Hmmm?” If you have ever suspected you suffer from mitral valve prolapse, or if members of your family have been diagnosed, please get to a doctor and have an evaluation. And even if you don’t have a family history, get tested anyway. A diagnosis of mitral valve prolapse or MVPS, and appropriate treatment, could dispose of your panic attacks and save you a whole lot of aggravation.

Indeed, perhaps you suffer from mitral valve prolapse or mitral valve prolapse syndrome, not panic. Women – are you paying attention?