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How is a Heart Attack Different from Cardiac Arrest?

Medically reviewed by John Paul Abrina, MD · Oncology · Davao Doctors Hospital

Written by Ruby Anne Hornillos · Updated Jun 01, 2021

How is a Heart Attack Different from Cardiac Arrest?

Heart attack and cardiac arrest are terms that are often used interchangeably. It’s a widely held belief that a heart attack and a cardiac arrest are the same thing. However, this isn’t true. Although both heart attacks and cardiac arrests can cause similar symptoms, they both affect the body in different ways.

Learn more about the difference between heart attacks and cardiac arrests, and what to do in the event that someone you know appears to be suffering from either of the two conditions. 

What is a Heart Attack?

A heart attack, also called a myocardial infarction, occurs when there is a blockage that forms in the coronary arteries. Due to the blockage, not enough oxygen-rich blood is supplied to the heart which is what causes a heart attack. 

Atherosclerosis is when plaque builds up in the coronary arteries. Plaque usually consists of calcium, fatty substances, and cellular waste products.

Atherosclerosis is a slow process, and it usually takes years for plaque to build-up and actually cause problems. The issue starts when pieces of plaque break off the tissue and form blood clots that can lead to heart attacks.

Heart attacks can happen so suddenly, because atherosclerosis usually does not exhibit any symptoms. Plaque can accumulate in the coronary arteries for years, and you wouldn’t even notice unless you undergo specialized tests. 

Heart attacks are examples of medical emergencies, and can happen to a person without any warning.

how is a heart attack different from cardiac arrest

Below are the symptoms of a heart attack to look out for:

  • Feeling pressure, pain, or fullness in the chest. You may also feel a general discomfort starting in the middle of your chest, which goes away and then comes back.
  • Pain in the upper body such as the jaw, neck, back, stomach, or arms
  • Dyspnea, which is shortness of breath
  • Cold sweat.
  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy

It’s important to note that symptoms of heart attacks aren’t the same for everyone. Not all people who suffered from a heart attack experienced any warning symptoms. It’s also more common for women to experience back pain, nausea, and dyspnea before a heart attack.

What is Sudden Cardiac Arrest?

A sudden cardiac arrest, also commonly referred to as cardiac arrest or sudden cardiac death, is when the heart suddenly stops beating causing blood flow to the parts of the body such as the brain or lungs to be abruptly cut off.

To understand sudden cardiac arrest, it’s important to learn about arrhythmias. Arrhythmia is a condition that primarily affects the electrical system in charge of regulating the beating of the heart. Arrhythmia can cause the heart to beat too slowly (bradycardia) or too fast (tachycardia).

The most common type is called atrial fibrillation, which causes a faster than normal and irregular heartbeat.

Specifically, ventricular fibrillation is usually the culprit of cardiac arrest as this type of arrhythmia causes the ventricles to stop pumping blood.

A sudden cardiac arrest may happen without any warning. A person suffering from a cardiac arrest may:

  • Suddenly collapse or faint (syncope).
  • Stop breathing, and have no pulse.

Warning signs of an impending cardiac arrest include:

  • Feeling discomfort in the chest.
  • Feeling weak.
  • Irregular or faster than normal heartbeats (palpitations).
  • Breathlessness.
  • How is a heart attack different from cardiac arrest?

    How is a heart attack different from a cardiac arrest? A heart attack and cardiac arrest are both serious medical emergencies that can lead to serious injuries or even death, in some cases. However, they aren’t the same.

    A heart attack can occur because of a clot or blockage located in the coronary artery, which greatly reduces or cuts off blood flow to the heart. A cardiac arrest happens when the heart stops beating, due to irregularities in a person’s heart beat. 

    To put it simply, a heart attack results from an issue in circulation while a cardiac arrest is caused by disruptions in the heart’s regular beating. If you’re wondering what’s more serious between a heart attack versus a cardiac arrest, then it’s a tie as both of these medical emergencies can put you or a person’s life in grave danger. 

    However, a link also exists between a heart attack and a cardiac arrest. Cardiac arrests can happen after or during the recovery period of a heart attack. This is because heart attacks can get in the way of the mechanism in charge of regulating your heartbeat. 

    What About a Stroke?

    A stroke is another medical emergency, but it doesn’t necessarily involve the heart. A stroke happens when the blood flow to the brain is reduced or interrupted. When the blood lacks blood and oxygen, brain cells will start to die. A stroke can also cause the following symptoms:

    • Numbness or complete paralysis of the leg, arm, or the face.
    • Having trouble walking or understanding what people are saying.
    • Not being able to talk clearly.
    • Having problems with your visions.
    • Sudden headache and nausea.

    What To Do If You Suspect Someone Is Having A Heart Attack, Cardiac Arrest, Or Stroke

    Heart Attack / Cardiac Arrest

    If you’re experiencing any symptoms associated with heart attack or cardiac arrest, make sure to contact emergency health services immediately. Even if you’re not sure whether they’re having a heart attack or stroke, it’s always best to have the assistance of medical professionals. 

    If someone you know collapsed suddenly, has no pulse, and isn’t breathing then call emergency health services and start to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). However, if you have not received any training in CPR, try calling someone nearby who knows how to. Avoid performing CPR yourself if you’ve never had any training or experience as this can do more harm than good.


    Contact emergency health services as soon as possible if you suspect you or someone you know is suffering from a stroke. Also, make sure to take note of when symptoms first started to appear. A specific kind of medication for stroke can only be administered after a certain period of time.

    If someone appears to be suffering from a stroke, make sure to prevent them from falling asleep and avoid giving them any food, drinks, or medication without the approval of a doctor or medical professional.

    Key Takeaways

    The term heart attack and cardiac arrest are used interchangeably, but actually refer to two different things. While both are considered to be medical emergencies, heart attacks occur because of a blockage in the arteries while cardiac arrests happen because of issues in the way the heart beats.

    Learn more about heart attacks, here.


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    John Paul Abrina, MD

    Oncology · Davao Doctors Hospital

    Written by Ruby Anne Hornillos · Updated Jun 01, 2021

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