With the recent tragic news of several celebrities passing away from a heart attack or sudden cardiac arrest one might think these terms are the same and used interchangeably … they are not. These terms are frequently confused. So what’s the difference?
A heart attack has to do with the blood flow to the heart and the potential damage to the heart muscle. Sudden cardiac arrest has to do with the electrical mechanisms affecting heart rhythm – typically due to very rapid heart rates and the inability of the heart to pump blood to the body.
Additionally, the medical responses to both of these occurrences can literally mean the difference between life and death.
What Is a Heart Attack?
In simple terms, the heart is a muscle. A heart attack occurs when there is restricted blood flow to the heart and the heart muscle begins to die. Often, this is caused by a blockage in the coronary arteries, or a blood clot, which restricts blood flow. This leaves the heart muscle damaged and therefore affects functioning. If the blockage is not opened quickly, the heart muscle, which normally receives oxygen-rich blood, begins to die.
Often, doctors will say “time is muscle” and this is truly the case with a heart attack. The longer someone goes without treatment the greater the damage to the heart muscle. With a heart attack the symptoms can build slowly.
Often, symptoms start days, even weeks, before a heart attack happens. Some of the most common symptoms are:
- Chest Pain (a feeling of tightness in the chest which lasts for several minutes and does not decrease with rest).
- Pain migrating to arms, neck, jaw, back, and abdomen.
- Shortness of breath.
- Feeling of nausea.
- Light-headedness or dizziness.
If you suspect that someone is having a heart attack, every minute makes a difference. Call 9-1-1 immediately to get the person to the emergency room so the blockage that is causing the attack can be taken care of. Emergency medical staff are trained to handle heart attack victims and get them to the hospital quickly.
What Is Sudden Cardiac Arrest?
Cardiac arrest (often called sudden cardiac arrest) is a sudden stopping of the heart without warning. This occurs because of an electrical malfunctioning of the heart, which is typically due to a very rapid heartbeat in the lower chambers of the heart. With the regular pumping of the heart disturbed, the heart cannot pump blood to vital organs like the brain and lungs. Often within seconds, a person has no pulse and loses consciousness. Death can occur within minutes if treatment is not administered immediately.
The symptoms preceding sudden cardiac arrest may be similar to the ones for a heart attack. However, there are other significant symptoms to be aware of, such as:
- Palpitations, rapid heartbeat or heart “racing.”
- Almost passing out.
- Sudden loss of consciousness.
- No breathing.
- No pulse.
What Should You Do in the Case of Sudden Cardiac Arrest?
Cardiac arrest is reversible in many people if it is treated very quickly. The most effective treatment is giving a shock to the heart using a device called a defibrillator, such as an AED (automatic external defibrillator). Emergency medical personnel have these devices available, and AEDs are now available in many other locations, such as schools and sports events. These devices treat rapid, life-threatening rhythms called ventricular tachycardia or ventricular fibrillation, and rapidly restore normal rhythm. Immediately call 9-1-1 to get emergency services to your location. Then begin performing what’s called Hands Only™ cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) immediately. By performing Hands-Only CPR to the beat of the well-known song Stayin’ Alive you can double, perhaps even triple, a person’s chances of survival until medical services arrive.
For an easy guide on how to perform CPR go to heart.org/handsonlycpr.
While sudden cardiac arrest and a heart attack may sound like the same thing, there are some differences. These terms are often confused but they are not the same thing. Both require immediate intervention to save lives. With a heart attack, quick intervention to unblock the clogged artery is essential to saving heart muscle. With sudden cardiac arrest, the heart’s beating function is compromised and is therefore not sending the right signals for proper pumping of blood to vital organs.
To find out more about these two potential heart conditions, visit CooperHealth.org/heart, or call 1.800.8.COOPER (1.800.826.6737) to make an appointment with a Cooper cardiologist.