Heart Attack vs. Cardiac Arrest – Do You Know The Difference?

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Heart Attack vs. Cardiac Arrest – Do You Know The Difference?
Infographic – herbshealthhappiness.com Photo sources – see foot of article

People often confuse cardiac arrest and heart attacks due to the similarities in the names and symptoms.

Both conditions cause millions of deaths every year, with an increasing incidence driven by the obesity epidemic. [1]

What Is Cardiac Arrest?

Cardiac arrest is an umbrella term used to describe an electrical dysfunction of the heart which halts the function of pumping blood.

There are several possible causes of cardiac arrest including heart attack, drug overdose, hypoxia, ventricular fibrillation, torsade de pointes (a dangerous type of arrhythmia) and electric shock.

Ventricular fibrillation is an electrical activity inside the heart that is so chaotic that the heart quivers or ‘fibrillates’ instead of pumping.

To rescue patients with cardiac arrest, doctors shock the heart with electrical pads in an attempt to reset the electrical current inside the muscle.

Cardiac arrest often happens without warning and leads to sudden collapse. The patient will typically be unconscious and unresponsive. Without immediate medical attention the person will die. Phone emergency services immediately and start CPR.

CPR helps blood and oxygen circulate to the brain and prevent brain damage. Many public places have defibrillators which are simple to use and have instructions. These deliver controlled electrical pulses which may help the heart to beat normally again.

Note on electric shock: In cases of electric shock, the first important step is to turn off the electrical supply and be sure that the patient is not still receiving electrical current. This is of course for the well being of the patient – but also, touching a person who is still receiving electric current could result in the second person being shocked! If the patient is in water and there is a likelihood that the water is still electrified, for example in case of a fallen power line, don’t touch the water or metal / conductive objects that are touching the water until it has been established that the electrical supply has been shut off! Any potentially dangerous electrical condition or fault should of course be reported to the emergency services.

What Is A Heart Attack?

A heart attack refers to the obstruction of blood supply to the heart muscle. The condition is also known as myocardial infarction, and it’s typically caused by a type of coronary artery disease. [2] A heart attack can lead to cardiac arrest.

During a heart attack, the coronary artery (i.e., the primary vessel that supplies the heart) gets clogged, which leads to the starvation and death of heart cells.

The patient will typically be conscious but may be in a state of panic. Keep them calm.

In either case, you should make an emergency call immediately and stay with the patient until help arrives.


[1] Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics—2017 Update: A Report From the American Heart Association (2017). https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/CIR.0000000000000485

[2] Ojha, N., & Dhamoon, A. S. (2019). Myocardial Infarction. In StatPearls [Internet]. StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537076/

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