PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Panic attacks can be debilitating. Medicine often helps, but now there’s a new treatment that’s offering a better solution.
“I experienced blurred vision, lightheadedness, dizziness. I had stomach problems, I had tingling in my face,” Jamie Kwolek said.
Her symptoms were a puzzle and they were taking a toll.
“When I was at my lowest point, and I remember we went on a family vacation, and I was the mom that was sitting under the tent because I had all these thoughts in my mind. I was lightheaded. I was too scared to go out in the sun, because I was lightheaded, and felt like I was going to pass out,” she said.
She had test after test — bloodwork for anemia, a scope for reflux, an MRI for multiple sclerosis. They were all normal. Her primary care doctor wanted to start a medicine for depression.
“For me, medication was the last resort,” Jamie says.
But then, Jamie saw an ad on social media for a device called Freespira. She knew she wanted to try that first.
That’s when she met Dr. Alicia Kaplan, a psychiatrist who was offering the device as part of a program commissioned by Highmark.
Allegheny Health Network psychiatrist Dr. Kaplan diagnosed Jamie with panic attacks, “a sudden onset fear or intense discomfort that’s unexpected.”
This feeling peaks within 10 minutes and has additional features.
“Rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, dizziness, lightheadedness, nausea, feeling out of sorts, out of your body, some people have a feeling they’re going to die,” she said. “Panic disorder is a very disabling condition. It can really interfere with quality of life.”
Typical treatment is with antidepressants and cognitive behavioral therapy to shape healthier thinking.
But sometimes people need something else. Previous studies have found targeting hyperventilation can be helpful in treating panic symptoms.
“She had explained to me the tablet and the CO2 monitor and the nose cannula,” Jamie said.
Freespira is a biofeedback device. Not FDA approved, but FDA cleared. You use the device to retrain your breathing, by inhaling and exhaling with tones. A carbon dioxide monitor gives you a target for breathing out.
In the four-week program, you learn to use the device at the doctor’s office.
Then in a quiet spot at home, twice a day, you use the device.
“The first week was difficult for me, because it actually had me breathing quicker than what I typically do. So I was kind of getting lightheaded,” Jamie said. “My hardest part was always at the end, where you don’t have the noises anymore, and it’s just the breathing.”
The number of doctor visits and emergency room visits in the 18 months before the program and in the 18 months after will be compared.
Among the 50 participants so far, the pattern is encouraging.
“They were 85 percent panic-attack free at the end of the four weeks, and it was sustained over a year’s period of time,” Dr. Kaplan said. “So, not only did they have clinical benefits, but they also had reductions in their health care claims.”
Jamie was nervous to give the equipment back after the four-week program, but when her panic symptoms flare up, she goes back to the breathing she learned. She’s been able to work, enjoy family time and live life to the fullest.
“I honestly have not had a panic attack,” she said.