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Cardiac arrest and heart attack are two medical conditions that are often confused with each other. They share similar symptoms, and both involve the heart, but they are two distinct conditions with different causes and treatments. In this blog post, we will discuss the difference between cardiac arrest vs heart attack and the steps you can take to reduce your risk of both.



Heart matters

A heart attack and cardiac arrest are both life-threatening medical emergencies. Recognizing the symptoms of each and knowing what actions to take can save a life.

Would you be relieved or feel more worried if a doctor told you your loved one had just experienced a heart attack rather than a cardiac arrest? Would you know the difference between those two terms?

Medical definitions can confuse everyone, but in this case, there are key differences between these two cardiac events.

Heart Attack

cardiac arrest vs heart attack heart healthA heart attack, also known as a myocardial infarction, occurs when the blood flow to a part of the heart is blocked. This is usually the result of a buildup of plaque in the arteries that supply the heart with blood. The blockage can cause chest pain, shortness of breath, and other symptoms. The heart muscle may be damaged if the blood flow is not restored quickly.

Symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • Chest pain or discomfort that may spread to the arms, neck, jaw, back, or stomach
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Light-headedness or fainting
  • Cold sweat

Treatment for a heart attack may involve medications to dissolve clots or reduce the workload on the heart and procedures such as angioplasty or stenting to open blocked arteries. Lifestyle changes like quitting smoking, eating a healthy diet, and exercising can also help prevent future heart attacks.

Cardiac Arrest

A cardiac arrest occurs when the heart suddenly stops beating. This can be caused by an electrical problem in the heart that disrupts the normal rhythm. When the heart stops beating, blood flow to the brain and other vital organs also stops. A person experiencing cardiac arrest may lose consciousness within seconds and stop breathing.

Symptoms of cardiac arrest include:

  • Sudden loss of consciousness
  • No pulse or breathing

Cardiac arrest is a medical emergency requiring immediate treatment with an electrical shock from a defibrillator device. CPR may also be necessary to keep blood flowing until medical help arrives. If treatment is not given within minutes, cardiac arrest can be fatal.

Difference Between Cardiac Arrest and Heart Attack

The main difference between cardiac arrest and heart attack is the underlying cause. A heart attack occurs when there is a blockage in one or more of the arteries that supply the heart with blood, while cardiac arrest occurs when the heart suddenly stops beating due to an electrical problem.

While both conditions involve the heart, their symptoms and treatments are different. A heart attack usually causes chest pain and other symptoms, while cardiac arrest causes a sudden loss of consciousness and no pulse. Treatment for a heart attack involves medications and procedures to restore blood flow to the heart, while cardiac arrest requires immediate defibrillation and CPR.

What are the causes and risk factors for a heart attack vs. cardiac arrest?

The causes and risk factors for heart attacks and cardiac arrests differ. Many people who experience a heart attack know they are at risk. Cardiac arrests, on the other hand, often happen to people who didn’t know they had a heart problem and were unaware of any risks.

Causes of heart attacks

Heart attacks are usually caused by coronary heart disease, which starves your heart of oxygen. People usually know they’re at risk of a heart attack because they’re being treated for heart disease.

Risk factors for a heart attack can include:

  • an unhealthy diet
  • lack of exercise
  • smoking
  • high cholesterol
  • high blood pressure
  • high blood sugar (or diabetes)
  • having overweight

Causes of cardiac arrests

Certain heart conditions and health factors, including coronary heart disease, can increase your risk of cardiac arrest. Other factors that aren’t always known could also put you at risk, such as:

  • an enlarged heart
  • irregularly shaped heart valves
  • congenital (hereditary) disease
  • electrical impulse problems
  • smoking
  • family history of heart disease
  • a previous heart attack
  • substance misuse

How is a heart attack vs. cardiac arrest diagnosed? 

A doctor can determine the difference between a heart attack and a cardiac arrest by conducting specific tests. This is one reason why it’s important to get immediate medical care if you or someone you know suspects they’re experiencing either a heart attack or a cardiac arrest.

Diagnosing a heart attack

cardiac arrest vs heart attack chest painDoctors diagnose a heart attack by performing a physical exam and ordering an electrocardiogram to check your heart’s electrical activity.

A doctor may order an echocardiogram or a cardiac catheterization to determine the strength and vitality of your heart. It’s also common to have a sample of your blood taken to check for signs of heart muscle damage.

Diagnosing a cardiac arrest

A cardiac arrest means your heart has stopped. Without immediate resuscitation, it’s fatal.

If a doctor successfully restarts your heart and gets the blood flowing again, they’ll then perform diagnostic tests to determine the cause of your cardiac arrest. These tests may include an echocardiogram, blood tests, and a chest X-ray to look for other signs of disease in your heart.

What are the treatment options for a heart attack vs. cardiac arrest?

Treatment options for heart attacks and cardiac arrests depend on factors such as:

  • other medical conditions you may have and prescription medications you may be taking
  • the seriousness of the heart attack or cardiac arrest
  • your health and ability to withstand surgeries or other procedures

Treating a heart attack

If you’ve had a heart attack, a doctor may recommend any number of procedures depending on the severity of the emergency to help relieve pain, prevent another heart attack, or both.

Some of these procedures or treatments can include:

  • a stent
  • angioplasty
  • heart bypass surgery
  • heart valve surgery
  • pacemaker insertion
  • in some cases, a heart transplant

It’s also common for doctors to prescribe medications, such as pain relievers, beta-blockers, and nitroglycerin, to help with recovery or to help prevent another heart attack.

Treating cardiac arrest

cardiac arrest vs heart attack symptomsTreatment for cardiac arrest nearly always starts with CPR or a defibrillator to get the heart started again. Once someone has survived a cardiac arrest, a doctor will likely start one or more treatments to help lower the risk of having it happen again. These often include:

  • medications
  • surgery
  • living a healthier, more active lifestyle

Reducing Your Risk of Cardiac Arrest and Heart Attack

There are several steps you can take to reduce your risk of both cardiac arrest and heart attack:

  • Quit smoking
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet
  • Exercise regularly
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Manage stress
  • Get enough sleep
  • Control high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes


Cardiac arrest and heart attack are serious medical conditions requiring prompt medical attention. Understanding the differences can help you recognize symptoms and take appropriate action. You can help protect your heart and stay healthy by taking steps to reduce your risk.