Know the Difference Between a Heart Attack and Cardiac Arrest

By Dr. Michael D. Horowitz, National Medical Director for Optum Health ~

Crushing chest pain, shortness of breath and pain in the neck and arms are all classic telltale signs of a heart attack, but aren’t those also the symptoms of cardiac arrest?

Contrary to what many people may believe, these two conditions are different, even though both are heart-related medical emergencies that need immediate lifesaving attention.

First and foremost, if you believe someone is having a heart attack or cardiac arrest, call 9-1-1. If the individual loses consciousness, stops breathing or you can’t feel their pulse, start CPR immediately and have someone else call 9-1-1. Always continue CPR until emergency medical services arrive and take over.

So now that you know what to do if you witness a person having a heart attack or suffering from cardiac arrest, let’s understand the difference between the two.

A heart attack, also known as myocardial infarction, occurs when an artery is blocked and prevents blood from reaching the heart muscle. The blockage can be caused by a buildup of fat, cholesterol and other substances. If the artery is not reopened promptly, part of the heart muscle could become damaged and even begin to die from a lack of nourishment. Symptoms can begin hours, days or even weeks before a heart attack hits. The most common signs include:

  • Tightness, pressure or an aching sensation in the chest or arms that may spread up to the neck, jaw or back
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue, lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Nausea, heartburn or abdominal pain

Cardiac arrest is triggered by an electrical malfunction in the heart and occurs suddenly. The malfunction then causes an abnormal heartbeat, known as arrhythmia, which disrupts the heart’s ability to pump blood to the brain, lungs and other organs. The person becomes unconscious and the heart stops beating effectively, resulting in the person having no pulse. If they don’t receive treatment within minutes, they may die. It happens that quickly. In fact, sudden cardiac arrest is a leading cause of death, with more than 320,000 annual cases occurring out of the hospital in the United States. Cardiac arrest often happens with no warning, but a person may experience a combination of the following symptoms before actually suffering from cardiac arrest:

  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Fainting
  • Dizziness
  • Chest pain or palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea or vomiting

One reason why people may confuse these terms for one another is because they can be related.

According to the American Heart Association, a heart attack can send a person into cardiac arrest, either at the time of the heart attack, during recovery or even in the future. Other conditions can also cause cardiac arrest, such as heart failure and cardiomyopathy (which is when the heart muscle is thinned and weakened or abnormally thickened). Other conditions may cause cardiac arrest, such as drug overdoses, trauma, drowning, suffocation or electrocution.

Although a heart attack and cardiac arrest are different, the lifesaving action steps you should take are the same – call 9-1-1 and perform CPR if the person becomes unconscious, is not breathing or has no pulse. These steps could help save that person’s life.

The American Heart Association also offers the reminder that you can double or even triple a person’s chance for survival by performing CPR to the beat of the song, “Stayin’ Alive,” until medical services take over.

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