Chest Pain—Is It a Heart Attack or Cardiac Arrest?

A lot of us know heart disease is the top killer of Americans. Heart disease encompasses conditions like hypertension, arrhythmia and cardiomyopathy.

Heart disease also includes more sinister conditions like heart attack and sudden cardiac arrest. Each year approximately 735,000 people have a heart attack — about half the time the victim survives.

Approximately 350,000 have cardiac arrest and have worse outcomes. Of those cardiac arrest patients treated by emergency medical services, only about 11 percent survive when not in a hospital.

If someone you care about were having a heart attack or cardiac arrest, would you know the difference and what you should do? There’s some similarity between the two conditions, but they aren’t the same.

Both are medical emergencies and require immediate professional medical care. If you suspect someone is having either a heart attack or sudden cardiac arrest, call 911.


The Difference Between a Heart Attack and Sudden Cardiac Arrest

Heart Attack

Heart attack happens when an artery to the heart becomes blocked. The blockage can result from atherosclerosis, which is, in simple terms, the formation of fat-based plaque inside the artery. When the outer thick covering of the plaque gets eroded or ruptures, it forms a clot, which eventually causes the “blockage” and obstructs blood flow to the heart muscles. This obstruction causes “starvation” of the heart muscles as they are deprived of oxygen and energy-rich nutrients. This eventually leads to quick death of these muscles— simply called “heart attack.”

If the artery isn’t opened quickly through professional medical intervention, part of the heart can be severely damaged. The longer the delay before treatment, the worse the damage.


Signs of a Heart Attack

Symptoms of a heart attack can appear suddenly and can be intense. However, symptoms more commonly start slowly and persist for hours, days or a week before the actual heart attack. Also, occasionally people can have a “silent” heart attack without any symptoms. This is commonly seen in diabetics.

The American Heart Association (AHA) says symptoms include:

  • Chest discomfort, squeezing or pressure in the center of the chest. It can last for more than a few minutes. It may go away and come back.
  • Discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath, with or without chest pain.
  • A cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness may be experienced by some victims, especially women.


Cardiac Arrest

Cardiac arrest happens when there is a malfunction in the electrical signals of the heart, also called as arrhythmia. During an arrhythmia, the heart can beat very rapidly or slowly. It can stop beating intermittently and have long pauses. The beat can also be irregular. While there are arrhythmias that can easily be managed on an outpatient basis, cardiac arrest is a kind of arrhythmia that can be fatal without emergency medical attention.  

During cardiac arrest, the heart is not able to properly pump blood to the brain, lungs and other key organs. This can lead to severe and irreversible damage of these organs unless blood flow is restored in time.

Signs of Cardiac Arrest

The AHA notes these symptoms:

  • The cardiac arrest victim will quickly pass out.
  • Breathing may stop or become extremely labored.
  • There may be no pulse.


Are Heart Attack and Cardiac Arrest Linked?

The conditions are not the same. While heart attack is related to the loss of blood flow to the heart muscles, a cardiac arrest is an abnormality in the electrical conduction of the heart. Occasionally, a heart attack can be the cause of a cardiac arrest. If you have a heart attack, you will be at increased risk for cardiac arrest.

Cardiac arrest can result from other conditions that disrupt your heart rhythm, including:


What Should You Do?

If someone displays symptoms of heart attack or cardiac arrest, call 911 immediately. An accurate diagnosis should be made by a health care professional.

For a heart attack, after 911 is called, emergency medical services (EMS) should get the victim to the emergency room as soon as possible.

For sudden cardiac arrest, call 911 immediately. If someone knows cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), it should be administered right away. If an automated external defibrillator is available, follow the directions to use it to correct the victim’s heartbeat. Then continue CPR until EMS arrives.

Completing a CPR class can help you be a life saver. Many Aurora facilities offer CPR classes. You never know when you might need to use what you’ve learned!

If you have a question about your heart health, see your health care provider. It’s never too late to take steps to improve your heart health.

Meet the Author

Mohammad Rana, MD, specializes in cardiovascular disease at Aurora Sheboygan Clinic in Sheboygan, WI.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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