What is the difference between cardiac arrest and a heart attack?

Many times the terms heart attack and cardiac arrest are used and there is a confusion between the two, or even that they might be the same thing.  They are actually very different.  However, you can have a heart attack that then turns into cardiac arrest.  

The most noticeable difference in a person is the fact that they are awake and responsive in a heart attack.  When a person has a heart attack, they have blockage or a clot in a major artery around the heart.  Blood is having trouble moving around so the person gets symptoms.

Common symptoms for a heart attack:

  • Chest pain or discomfort or just some pressure
  • Arm pain
  • Neck pain
  • Jaw pain
  • Shoulder pain
  • Back pain
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Difficulty breathing

If you have any of these symptoms, ask yourself what you did the last 24 hours.  If you worked out, shoveled snow, or did some heavy lifting that you are not used to, it could be a pulled muscle or overworked muscles.  If you can feel better with position change, you could try taking a anti-inflammatory medication like Ibuprofen or a pain reliever like Tylenol.  If you get relief from either of these, likely it is not a cardiac event.  If you ate a large meal, ate out at a buffet, or ate a spicey meal and have some of these symptoms, it could be acid reflux or  indigestion.  Try taking a Tums or Rolaids and if you get relieve, there is a good chance it is not a cardiac event.  In any case, choose to be seen if you continue discomfort for long as there is no way to tell for sure without an appropriate evaluation.

If you have these symptoms, and feel it could be anxiety and have never been treated for anxiety, we suggest you go to the ER.  Stress and anxiety can mimic a cardiac condition but it is hard to tell without an evaluation.

Why not just go to a clinic or urgent care with a cardiac event?  Clinics and urgent care offices rarely have anything beyond an EKG to evaluate for a heart attack.  An EKG is a quick snap shot of the heart at that time and heart attacks are known to be missed with just an EKG.  They will check blood levels and do a procedure in the cath lab at the hospital to look at your arteries.  It is very simple and you are kept awake during this quick procedure. It typically takes about 15 minutes to check.  

Calling 911 is critical at the time of these symptoms to avoid it turning into cardiac arrest.  You should never attempt to drive yourself anywhere.  If you do not want to call 911 and go in an ambulance, call someone to take you to the hospital.

If the person with heart attack symptoms goes unconscious, likely they are in cardiac arrest.

If you seek help right away with a small blockage, you could have a stint or bypass to avoid any additional damage to the heart.  

Some people have heart attacks and don’t even realize it.  It is important to have an annual physical so the physician can listen to your heart, check your heart rate, blood pressure, cholesterol, and EKG depending on age for preventative measures.

Symptoms of cardiac arrest:

  • Unresponsive
  • No pulse
  • Not breathing

Call 911 and begin CPR.  Refresh your CPR training every 2 years so you have the muscle memory to remember what to do when a stressful medical situation arises and so you can learn if there are any updated changed.

The American Heart Association does research with a team of healthcare professionals and updates the guidelines to CPR every 5 years.  Make sure you have learned the latest so the best chance of survival is possible.