The Difference Between Cardiac Arrest and a Heart Attack

December 21, 2018 | Dr. Mary Williams, RN, DC | Comments

Cardiac arrest is what happens when your heart stops beating due to some kind of malfunction. A heart attack is what happens when something is blocking blood flow to your heart.

They’re not the same—but they can be interconnected, in that a heart attack can sometimes cause cardiac arrest. Let’s take a more in-depth look at both.

What is a heart attack?

Like all the other muscles in your body, your heart requires a steady supply of oxygen-rich blood to keep going. Your coronary arteries are the highway that delivers that blood. When those get blocked—with plaque or a blood clot—parts of your heart muscle start to atrophy and die.

If enough of your heart is starved of blood, you could have a heart attack.

Causes of heart attack

The biggest cause of heart attack involves coronary artery disease arising from atherosclerosis, which is the medical term for a buildup of fatty deposits on the artery walls.

Most heart attacks occur when one of those deposits ruptures. A blood clot will form where the rupture occurred, and this can grow large enough to block the artery—either partially or entirely. Even a partial block can mean serious trouble for your heart.

Another, rarer cause of heart attacks involves an arterial spasm. These can occur at random, for no cause at all—or they could be caused by the following:

  • Withdrawal from alcohol or drugs
  • Severe emotional stress
  • Exposure to extreme cold
  • Medications that cause the blood vessels to narrow
  • Strong stimulants such as cocaine or methamphetamines

Symptoms of heart attack

It’s essential to know the signs of a heart attack—as you’re much more likely to make a full recovery if you get treatment in time. Approximately 85% of the damage caused by heart attacks occurs in the first two hours.

About half of people who experience heart attacks have early symptoms, and recognizing these could make all the difference in your recovery. Common early symptoms include:

  • Mild, recurring chest discomfort
  • Pain in the jaw, shoulders, or neck
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fainting, lightheadedness, or breathlessness
  • Sweating
  • Severe anxiety; some have reported a sense of “impending doom”

Symptoms of heart attack can vary widely between men and women, and between individuals overall. However, what are considered “classic” symptoms of heart attack are generally those that occur in men, so historically it has been more difficult for women to recognize when they are having heart attacks—or get a correct diagnosis. That’s changing, but it’s still essential to be aware of the differences.

Men are more likely to have heart attacks, and at a younger age, than women. Symptoms include:

  • Squeezing chest pain that feels like an immense weight on the chest. This may be constant, or it may come and go.
  • Discomfort in the back, neck, jaw, shoulder, or arms; particularly in the left shoulder.
  • Stomach pain—easy to mistake for indigestion.
  • A too-fast or irregular heartbeat.
  • Cold sweats.
  • Shortness of breath, even when not exerting yourself.
  • Dizziness or a feeling of faintness.

Women have fewer heart attacks than men and at a later age, but they tend to be more lethal: since 1984, more women than men have died of heart attack. That’s partially because the symptoms in women can be different than those in men, and tend to be under-recognized among both victims and medical personnel.

Common symptoms for heart attack in women include:

  • Sleep disturbance or fatigue, either sudden and severe or over a period of days or weeks.
  • Anxiety.
  • Lightheadedness and shortness of breath.
  • Radiating pain that starts in the chest and spreads down the arm or up to the jaw.
  • Pain in the upper back, throat, or shoulder.
  • Stomach pain that feels like gas or indigestion.

The hormone estrogen is thought to have some protective effect against heart attacks in women—which is why women tend to experience heart attacks at a later age. After 50, women experience different symptoms, some of which resemble men’s symptoms. These include:

  • Very bad chest pain.
  • Pain in the back, neck, jaw, stomach, or one or both arms.
  • Irregular or too-fast heartbeat.
  • Sweating.

And if you weren’t already worried, here’s another thing to ponder—some heart attacks happen without any of the usual symptoms. These are “silent heart attacks,” which can occur without you even knowing it. These have consequences, though—these heart attacks damage your  heart and open you up to having more severe attacks in the future.

Your risk factor for a silent heart attack goes up if you have diabetes or a heart attack in the past. Symptoms include:

  • Clamminess in the skin.
  • Mild discomfort in the jaw, arms, or chest that goes away when you rest.
  • Shortness of breath; you may feel like you’re tiring too easily.
  • Fatigue and sleep disturbance.
  • Heartburn and abdominal pain.

First aid for a heart attack

If you or someone with you is having a heart attack, it’s important not to tough out the symptoms. Act immediately. Here are the steps you should take:

Call 911. The sooner emergency personnel can get there, the likelier you are of making a full recovery. If you don’t have access to an emergency number, have someone drive you to the nearest hospital—don’t try to drive yourself unless you have no other options.

Take an aspirin—unless you’ve been told by your doctor never to take it, or unless you have an allergy.

Take nitroglycerin if it’s already been prescribed to you.

Start CPR if you’re with a person having a heart attack, and they become unconscious. If you’re on the phone with a 911 dispatcher, tell them if the person has become unconscious.

Use an AED if there’s one immediately to hand. The instructions for these are designed to be clear even for people with no medical training—all you have to do is follow the directions.

What is cardiac arrest?

When you’re having a heart attack, your heart keeps beating—even if the blood flow is disrupted. With cardiac arrest, your heart stops beating entirely. Once this happens, you quickly lapse into unconsciousness and can die within minutes if you don’t get treatment.

Causes of cardiac arrest

If heart attacks are primarily a circulatory problem, we can define cardiac arrest as mostly an electrical issue. Your heart is powered by an electrical system that makes the muscles contract—rhythmically pumping blood throughout your body. When that system malfunctions, your heart stops and your organs quickly become starved of oxygen.

Cardiac arrests can occur at any age, and for no apparent reason. Even infants can fall victim—and some research suggests that cardiac arrest plays a role in some cases of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

Causes of cardiac arrest include:

  • Abnormal heart rhythms
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Changes in the heart structure
  • Respiratory arrest
  • Choking or drowning
  • Electrocution
  • Hypothermia
  • Pacemaker malfunction
  • Alcohol or drug overdose
  • Large drops in blood pressure
  • Heart attack

Symptoms of cardiac arrest

Heart attacks have a long list of symptoms. Cardiac arrest only has one: sudden loss of consciousness. No breathing, and no pulse.

You may experience some warning signs before a cardiac arrest occurs, though. These include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain in the chest
  • Weakness or dizziness
  • Heart palpitations
  • Nausea

However, there may be no warning signs.

First aid for cardiac arrest

Cardiac arrest can be terrifying, but it’s survivable—as long as the victim gets treatment within a few minutes. The first thing you should do for a victim is call 911.

Then start CPR. Push hard and fast in the center of the chest, to the beat of “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees—and keep doing that until emergency services arrive. By doing this, you could vastly increase the chances that the victim will survive.

If there’s an AED available, use it—these are designed to be used even by non-medical professionals.

Heart attacks and cardiac arrest are different, but connected—and it’s essential to know the signs of both. Learn CPR, and you’ll be equipped to save a life in the event of either one.  


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