What’s the difference between a heart attack and cardiac arrest? It’s pretty common for people to confuse these two terms. After all, they both describe heart emergencies. While it’s true that these conditions can be related to each other, the terms are not interchangeable. They are, in fact, different conditions that shouldn’t be confused. This article will look at the differences of a heart attack vs. cardiac arrest.
A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart is blocked. Normally, the coronary arteries supply blood, oxygen and nutrients to the heart. When the arteries become obstructed, usually by a blood clot, the heart muscle tissue begins to die. If blood flow to the heart doesn’t resume, the result is fatal. Fundamentally, a heart attack is a circulation problem.
Symptoms of a Heart Attack
The following are common symptoms of a heart attack.
- Discomfort in the chest. Often, this comes in the form of pressure or a squeezing sensation. Other times, it can be a feeling of ‘fullness’ or pain.
- Discomfort in other areas of the body. It’s common to experience pain or pressure in parts of the upper body, such as the back, neck, stomach or jaw. Sometimes, pain can start in the chest and spread outward. Sometimes it’s more pronounced in the left side of the body, particularly the left arm.
- Shortness of breath is also common. It may be felt with or without chest discomfort.
- Lightheadedness, dizziness, and nausea can also occur. Men are less likely than women to experience these symptoms.
- Other symptoms include abdominal pain, fatigue, cold sweat and swollen feet or ankles.
The signs of a heart attack may be sudden. More often, however, they appear gradually over time. If you think you’re having a heart attack, it’s important to call 911 right away.
Cardiac arrest is when someone’s heart abruptly stops beating. It is usually the result of an electrical disturbance in the heart that causes an irregular heartbeat. With the heart’s blood-pumping action stopped (arrested), the rest of the body doesn’t get the oxygenated blood it needs. This can cause permanent brain damage, or death in a matter of minutes. If a heart attack is a circulation problem, then cardiac arrest is an electrical problem.
Symptoms of Cardiac Arrest
Unlike a heart attack, the signs of cardiac arrest are drastic and immediate. Before the heart stops, a person going into cardiac arrest may experience dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, and heart palpitations.
Once the heart does stop, the victim will show the following signs:
- Sudden collapse.
- No pulse/heartbeat.
- Not breathing.
- Loss of consciousness.
If you think someone has gone into cardiac arrest, it’s important to get help immediately.
Heart Attack vs. Cardiac Arrest: How are they Treated?
The treatments used for heart attacks vary depending on the cause and severity of each attack. The common goal of all treatments is to maintain blood flow to the heart.
- Aspirin reduces the blood’s clotting effect, allowing it to flow more easily through a narrowed artery.
- Thrombolytics help to dissolve existing blood clots.
- Antiplatlet agents stop new clots from forming and prevent existing ones from getting larger.
- Nitroglycerin can treat chest pain and widen blood vessels, improving blood flow.
- Beta blockers slow your heartbeat and decrease blood pressure, making the heart’s job easier.
Other more invasive treatments for heart attacks include:
- Coronary artery bypass surgery. In some cases, doctors sew the veins and arteries in place to redirect blood around the blocked section of an artery.
- Angioplasty and stenting. This includes the use of a catheter with a balloon at the end of it, which is inserted into the arteries. There, it expands, widening the narrowed section and allowing a stent to be placed to keep it open.
When someone goes into sudden cardiac arrest, the clock is ticking. CPR can mimic the heart’s function and keep blood flowing throughout the body, buying time for help to arrive. Once an automated external defibrillator (AED) is available, it is used to deliver an electric shock that can restore the heart’s normal rhythm.
Heart Attack vs. Cardiac Arrest: What’s the Link?
So just how are heart attacks and cardiac arrest related? In short, one can lead to the other. The damage and scarring caused by a heart attack can disorganize the heart’s electrical signals. This can lead to irregular heartbeats (arrhythmia) including ventricular fibrillation (Vfib) which affects the lower chambers of the heart, and atrial fibrillation (Afib) which affects the upper chambers. Vfib happens to be the leading cause of cardiac arrest.
Learn More About Heart Attacks and Cardiac Arrest
If you want to learn more about heart attacks, cardiac arrest, and what to do in the event of an emergency, consider taking an online CPR course. While the traditional in-person courses will always be an option, many people find they don’t have the time. Online classes, however, allow you to learn lifesaving skills on your own schedule, including the proper use of an AED.