Heart attack VS cardiac arrest: What’s the difference?

The terms heart attack and cardiac arrest are very often used as synonyms for each other, suggesting they mean the same thing in medical terms. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Despite being referred to interchangeably, they actually have very differing meanings.

If you’re confused about what makes them different, then don’t worry – you’re not alone! Read on for a closer look at what each term means and how they are differentiated in a medical setting.

What is a heart attack?

Heart attacks – or what doctors refer to as a myocardial infarction (or MI for short)- are caused by damage to the heart muscle. This can be restricted to a smaller part of the heart or more widespread, but the root cause is poor blood flow to the impacted area.

In this way, a heart attack has been referred as a “plumbing problem”.

When this happens, it is often caused by one defining factor: a blocked artery in the heart itself. These are what we call a type 1 heart attack, with blockages usually caused by cholesterol. When this area ruptures, it causes a clot which then leads to an obstruction of the artery and a heart attack.

What is cardiac arrest?

If heart attacks are caused by blockages (plumbing problem), then cardiac arrest is caused by damage to the heart’s rhythm, it’s electrical impulse.

Therefore, cardiac arrest could be understood as an “electrical fault’.

When this happens, there’s no blood circulating through the body to the patient’s vital organs, including their heart, brain and lungs. This will cause the patient to stop breathing and ultimately become unresponsive.
This process can happen within a few seconds and requires prompt bystander CPR (Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation) before an ambulance arrives.

But don’t heart attacks cause cardiac arrest?

While it’s true that heart attacks frequently lead to cardiac arrest (in fact it’s the most common cause), it isn’t the only cause.

There are other reasons why a person might experience cardiac arrest, including (but not limited to) a blood clot in their lungs, an imbalance of minerals in the bloodstream, and heart failure.

Other causes that you might not immediately associate with cardiac arrest include drug overdoses and even damage to the chest area.

How much damage can a heart attack cause?

The size of the heart attack has some impact on how much damage it causes to the person affected, and therefore also the amount of treatment needed.

During medical assessments, doctors may check the blood levels of troponin (a protein) to check how big the heart attack has been. An echocardiogram (another term for a heart ultrasound) will also help to uncover damage.

Bigger heart attacks have the potential to significantly impact the strength of the heart, making it weaker.

Common symptoms of heart attack

Symptoms of a heart attack may be subtle to severe, and may include one or more of the following:

  • Pain, pressure or squeezing in the chest area
  • Pain and discomfort in the arm, neck or back
  • Sudden shortness of breath
  • Sudden vomiting or feelings of nausea
  • Unexplained fatigue and dizziness
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First aid treatment for a heart attack

If you think you or someone else is having a heart attack, act fast by getting emergency medical care. Here are the basic first aid steps for a suspected heart attack:

  1. Rest the person comfortably, seated or lying down.
  2. Call 000 for an ambulance (or your country’s emergency number)
  3. Assist them with any relevant prescribed medication.
  4. Stay with them and give constant reassurance until an ambulance arrives.

If the person collapses and becomes unconscious, follow the DRSABCD basic life support action steps. Completing a CPR course regularly is recommended to learn proper technique and keep skills current.

Learn more at a first aid or CPR course

To learn more about giving heart attack first aid and how to give CPR in the event of a cardiac arrest, there’s no replacement for a hands-on quality training course.

My First Aid run nationally recognised first aid and CPR public courses for individuals and private workplace groups in Brisbane.
To book, simply head to the course pages and select the date you wish to attend from the course booking calendar or submit a group quote request here.

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