Know the difference between a heart attack and cardiac arrest

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.

“Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart malfunctions and stops beating, so it’s more of an electrical problem,” said Dr. Ravi Johar, chief medical officer for UnitedHealthcare. “A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart is blocked. So that’s a circulation problem.”

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 arrives and takes 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.

Heart attack

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

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 one of the leading causes of death, with over 356,000 annual cases of occurring out of the hospital in the U.S. — with 90% fatal. 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 at a future time. 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.

Fast action can save lives

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.

Immediate CPR, or hands-only CPR, can double or even triple chances of survival after cardiac arrest. Anyone, even some children, can successfully perform hands-only CPR.

Here’s a brief overview on the steps:

  • Call 911 or have someone near you call 911
  • Get directly over the victim
  • Place one hand over the center of the chest
  • Place your other hand on top of the first
  • Push hard and fast in the center of the chest until help arrives
  • Push giving 100 to 120 compressions per minute (the same tempo as the song, “Stayin’ Alive”)

To find a CPR class near you, visit

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