The Differences Between a Heart Attack and Cardiac Arrest


The terms ‘heart attack’ and ‘cardiac arrest’ can be thrown around in general conversation as if they mean the same thing.

They don’t.

And knowing the difference between heart attack and cardiac arrest can make a huge difference when trying to save a person’s life.

Understanding the Terms

A heart attack is also called a myocardial infarction. This may be where it gets confused with cardiac arrest.

Infarction means localized tissue in or around the heart is in danger, or has died, due to an obstruction preventing blood reaching it.

Arrest means stop. In other words, the heart has stopped beating entirely.

One key difference between heart attack and cardiac arrest is that cardiac arrest occurs within the heart, while heart attacks are from artery problems.

Both can kill. Knowing the difference can save a life, especially if you know CPR or if you carry with you a portable CPR mask that has instructions.

Heart Attack

In the United States the heart attack is at the top of the list of killers. A heart attack is caused by a problem in the circulation very close to the heart itself and oxygen-carrying blood can’t get to a heart muscle. This is often due to a clogged, blocked, or malfunctioning artery. The chamber of the heart that is fed by that artery then deteriorates.

A person may remain conscious during a heart attack or may lose consciousness. But the person will have a pulse because the heart has not stopped.

The wait time from onset to treatment has a direct correlation to damage. The quicker the response, the less the damage may be.

Symptoms of a Heart Attack

One of the biggest differences between heart attack and cardiac arrest is that the former has clear symptoms that can be in clusters:

  • Chest pain.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Pressure on the chest. Some describe it as like having a bowling ball in the chest.
  • Sweating for an unknown reason.
  • Feeling queasy or nauseous.
  • Pain in the arms, back, stomach, jaw, and neck.
  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy.
  • Very strong heartburn.

Some mild symptoms can go on for weeks.

Women and men can experience very similar symptoms, although women tend to get the ‘heartburn’ or ‘flu’ symptoms more often than chest pain.

Cardiac Arrest

Cardiac arrest means the heart stops beating entirely. The term is used when the heart of a patient in surgery stops, not just when a person collapses and is unresponsive.

It is an issue with the body’s electrical system. It can happen suddenly with no warning signs. The heart goes into arrhythmia where pumping is disrupted. In moments, the person falls unconscious and the heart stops. Death happens in minutes unless treatment is administered.

What to Do

Quick action saves lives.

Heart attack:

  • Call 911. Listen to the dispatcher, stay on the line, answer questions, and follow instructions.
  • If the patient has lost consciousness, begin CPR. Having a CPR mask in your first aid kit is an invaluable tool. It provides instructions for chest compressions and for airway resuscitation, along with a safety barrier to prevent fluid exchange.

Cardiac arrest:

  • Stay as calm as possible. Panic is no help at all.
  • Call 911. Listen to the dispatcher, stay on the line, answer questions, and follow instructions.
  • Check very carefully for a pulse.
  • Start CPR. Mouth-to-mouth with a CPR mask is good, but chest compressions are vital for keeping blood circulating. Any attempt at CPR is better than none.
Creative Commons Attribution: Permission is granted to repost this article in its entirety with credit to Prime Effects and a clickable link back to this page.

Prime Effects
Prime Effects