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What’s the Difference Between Cardiac Arrest and a Heart Attack?

A heart attack and sudden cardiac arrest are two medical terms that are often confused with one another. While both of these heart problems are serious medical emergencies, they are conditions requiring different actions.

“A cardiac arrest is an electrical issue that affects the heart’s rhythm, while a heart attack is generally associated with a reduction of blood flow to the heart,” said Rishi Patel, MD, an interventional cardiologist at Banner Health. “While a heart attack can sometimes cause a cardiac arrest, the two do not always coincide.”

While most people will survive a heart attack, very few survive cardiac arrest. It’s important in either case to act fast and call 911.

Read on to learn the causes and symptoms of each and what you can do to reduce your risk for both medical emergencies.

What is a heart attack?

A heart attack, also called a myocardial infarction (MI), occurs when one or more of the coronary arteries, which supply the heart with oxygen-rich blood, is blocked. A blockage usually occurs when plaque inside the artery breaks open and a blood clot forms in the artery. 

Without prompt treatment, the portion of the heart muscle that is fed by the blocked artery may start to die. Every year, more than 800,000 people in the U.S. have a heart attack. Of these, 200,000 have already had a heart attack previously. 

Heart attack risk factors can differ between men, women and people of all gender identities, but many risk factors apply to all. Lifestyle choices, like smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise, and some health conditions, like diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol, can put you at greater risk.

Symptoms of a heart attack

The symptoms of a heart attack can vary by sex and intensity. Some heart attacks may be immediate and intense, while others build up over time for hours, days or weeks. 

Common heart attack symptoms include:

“People with diabetes and women may also develop atypical symptoms with their heart attacks, such as abdominal or back and jaw pain, fatigue and dizziness,” Dr. Patel said. 

What is sudden cardiac arrest?

Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart is not circulating blood effectively. It can occur from a life-threatening, irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) such as ventricular fibrillation. This causes the heart to beat rapidly or stop beating altogether. 

When the heart stops beating, breathing, consciousness, and blood circulation to the brain and other vital organs stop. If not treated immediately, brain damage and death can occur.

Cardiac arrest is one of the leading causes of death in American adults, with about 300,000 to 450,000 deaths yearly.

The most common cause of sudden cardiac death in adults is coronary artery disease (CAD), also known as atherosclerotic heart disease. Other causes may include congenital heart disease (CHD), enlarged heart (cardiomyopathy), valvular heart disease and electrical problems with the heart.

Symptoms of cardiac arrest

Cardiac arrest symptoms typically start quickly and without warning. You may or may not experience symptoms before you faint or lose consciousness.

Symptoms may include:

  • Dizziness
  • Unexplained shortness of breath
  • Chest pains
  • Seizures
  • Feeling nauseated or vomiting 

Is there a connection between a heart attack and a cardiac arrest?

Sudden cardiac arrest can occur after a heart attack or during recovery. Having a heart attack can also increase your risk for cardiac arrest. 

Certain health conditions can put you at greater risk of sudden cardiac arrest and heart attack.

“Specifically, people with coronary artery disease and cardiomyopathy (a weakening of the heart muscle/function) are at the highest risk for heart attack and cardiac arrest,” Dr. Patel said. “For this reason, many receive an implantable defibrillator.”

How should you treat a heart attack and cardiac arrest?

“You should act quickly in both cases and call 911,” Dr. Patel said. “Both require emergency medical care, so acting quickly could be the difference between life and death.”

If someone is in cardiac arrest:
  • Call 911.
  • Start performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).
  • Get access to an automated external defibrillator (AED). This allows the heart to continue to pump blood to the vital organs until the person experiencing cardiac arrest can get to a hospital.

For those who survive cardiac arrest, your provider may prescribe medication to manage blood pressure and cholesterol and recommend lifestyle changes. If there is damage to the heart, surgery may be needed.

If someone is having a heart attack:
  • Call 911.
  • Follow instructions given to you by the dispatcher on the phone.
  • Stay calm until help arrives.
  • If you are the one having the heart attack, do NOT attempt to drive yourself or wait for symptoms to subside.

For those who experience a heart attack, your provider may prescribe medications to thin the blood or reduce clotting and cardiac rehabilitation to help you make lifestyle changes and give emotional support while you return to daily life. In some cases, coronary angioplasty, stenting or coronary artery bypass surgery may be necessary.

How to reduce your risk of heart attacks and cardiac arrest

There are various ways to reduce your risk for a heart attack or cardiac arrest, including:

  • Sticking to a healthy diet
  • Getting daily, heart-pumping exercise
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Stopping smoking
  • Lowering cholesterol and blood pressure

Also, check out “5 Ways to Take Care of Your Heart” for more tips.

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