Do you know the difference between a heart attack and cardiac arrest?


By Linnea Mason, Advocate Health Care News Service

Did you know that a heart attack and cardiac arrest are not the same thing? It’s common for people to use the terms interchangeably, but they are actually very different conditions, experts say.

Here’s what you need to know.

What is the difference between a heart attack and a cardiac arrest?
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), a heart attack occurs when a blocked artery prevents oxygen-rich blood from reaching a section of the heart. If the blocked artery is not reopened quickly, the artery begins to die.

Cardiac arrest or sudden cardiac death (SDC) is triggered by an electrical malfunction in the heart that causes an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia). Disruption in the heart beat causes the heart to not be able to pump blood to the brain, lungs and other organs.

What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of a heart attack can result in chest pain and pressure/tightness in the arms, neck, jaw or even the upper back and/or abdomen. A person may also have nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath and severe sweating. Women can encounter different symptoms than men.

Cardiac arrest typically happens suddenly and without warning. A person usually collapses with total loss of consciousness and is not breathing or is gasping for air. They are usually unconscious and are not feeling any pain or discomfort. Death may occurs within minutes if the person doesn’t receive treatment immediately.

What can you do if someone is having a cardiac arrest?
If you or someone you know is experiencing cardiac arrest, call 911 immediately.

“Time is muscle,” says Dr. James McCriskin, cardiologist with Advocate Heart Institute at BroMenn Medical Center in Normal, Ill. “Getting to the emergency room as quickly as possible is vital. The more time that passes, the more heart muscle that can become irreparable and damaged.”

According to the AHA, cardiac arrest can be reversed in some cases if it’s treated within a few minutes. Call 911 immediately and begin CPR right away. If an automated external defibrillator (AED) is close by, use it as soon as possible. An AED can send an electrical shock to the heart to help “wake” it up.

The AHA reports that every year nearly 326,000 out-of-hospital sudden cardiac arrests occur, and 88 percent of them happen in the home.

What is the link?
Most heart attacks do not lead to cardiac arrest, but when cardiac arrest occurs, heart attack is a common cause. Other conditions may also disrupt the heart’s rhythm and can lead to cardiac arrest.

“Understanding the difference in the two conditions can help you to be better prepared,” Dr. McCriskin says. “If you are ever faced with this emergency or witness someone, remaining calm and focused is the person’s best chance for survival.”

Live in the Chicagoland area? Sign up here for a CPR class near you.

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  1. This is a great summary. Way too often the press calls cardiac arrest events “heart attacks” and the public becomes less inclined to take an interest in helping in the event of a cardiac arrest.

    One problem with the AEDs is that people don’t know where they are. A recent study by the American Journal of Emergency Medicine noted that the chances of survival are greatly increased if the 9-1-1 operators could tell someone where to find one.

    On Sunday, January 24th, Collier County, FL’s 9-1-1 center’s AED Link system was activated for a cardiac arrest call on Marco Island, FL. The system notified many responders, three of whom responded and arrived on-scene to do CPR and use their AED on an SCA victim.

    According to the person who delivered the shock, they arrived well ahead (nearly 8 minutes) of EMS.  After only one shock, the patient was awake and talking upon their arrival. So awake that he demanded the responder stop CPR! The responder said, “If we (Collier County) didn’t have this system (AED Link) our neighbor would probably have died.”


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