Heart Attack Vs Cardiac Arrest: What You Need To Know

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Many may think that a heart attack and cardiac arrest are one and the same. However, they are two very different events and should be treated accordingly. Understanding the differences and protocol can literally mean the difference between life and death. In either of these instances, you only have minutes to act. Being prepared beforehand can save the life of a loved one or even a stranger.

Heart Attack vs Cardiac Arrest

Heart attacks happen when the arteries pumping blood to and from the heart become clogged or blocked in any way. When arteries become blocked, the heart is starved of oxygen, which results in a heart attack. At the very least, the heart is damaged. At worst, the result is a loss of life. Heart attack symptoms include, but are not limited to:

  • Heaviness or pain in the chest
  • Discomfort radiating to the back, jaw, or arm
  • Nausea

Cardiac arrest is an abrupt stoppage of the heart. Cardiac arrest is triggered when there is an impulse malfunction between the brain and the heart. This function can best be described with an example: if a lamp is plugged into an outlet, a non-stop stream of electricity will keep the light on. If the plug is disrupted, even slightly, a complete loss of electricity can happen. So, if the brain and heart aren't continuously communicating to each other through these impulses, it can result in complete loss of function.


Heart attack symptoms can be treated a variety of ways. First and foremost, if you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, call 911 immediately. After the call has been placed, stay calm. If possible, the person experiencing the heart attack should chew baby aspirin. Chewing helps get the medication into your blood stream quicker. If the patient stops breathing, administer CPR.

If cardiac arrest occurs, call 911. Immediately begin CPR. If an AED is available, that should be used right away. An AED (automated external defibrillator) is sometimes referred to as a defibrillator. It will shock the heart to try and restart it. AEDs are commonly found in commercial and public spaces near the first aid station. If an AED isn't available, continue with CPR to supply oxygen to the brain to minimize brain damage. The AED will have detailed instructions so that even the most inexperienced person can operate it until emergency personnel arrive. AED's will not shock a heart that is not in cardiac arrest.

Heart attacks and cardiac arrest are no joke. If you or someone you know are experiencing any of the symptoms of a heart attack, do not downplay them. Seek help immediately because the situation can escalate into life or death quickly. Unfortunately, cardiac arrest gives no warning signs. It can strike in an instant.  Knowing the difference between a heart attack and cardiac arrest can help you and the emergency personnel know the best form of treatment to administer to try and save a life. Contact a health care clinic, such as Halifax Heart Center, for more information.