The difference between cardiac arrest and a heart attack

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In the past few days, we lost American musician, singer and songwriter Tom Petty, best known as the lead singer of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers which came to fame during the 1970’s.  This incredible musical talent lost his life to what is called cardiac arrest.  Many people may associate this with meaning the same thing as having a heart attack.  Even though cardiac arrest and heart attack are interrelated, they are not the same.

What is cardiac arrest?

Every year more than 350,000 people in the United States have cardiac arrest with 90 percent or 9 out of 10 people who suffer an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest will die when this happens.  This makes cardiac arrest one of the leading causes of death in this country. 

A cardiac arrest occurs when the heart malfunctions and stops beating unexpectedly.   It is triggered by an electrical malfunction in the heart causing an irregular heartbeat or arrhythmia disrupting the pumping action of the flow of blood to the brain, lungs, and other organs. 

Since there is this massive disruption of blood flow to major organs, someone who has a cardiac arrest will suddenly collapse unconscious with their breathing becoming irregular or with no breathing and no pulse. When cardiac arrest happens, there is no time to lose as it is a life-threatening emergency. Victims of cardiac arrest who do not receive treatment immediately, will die within a matter of minutes.

Sometimes there can be warning signs that precede sudden cardiac arrest which might include fatigue, fainting, blackouts, dizziness, chest pain, shortness of breath, weakness, palpitations, or vomiting.  But more likely it will occur with no warning. 

Cardiac arrest, in the majority of cases, is caused by abnormal heart rhythm called ventricular fibrillation (VF).  VF is when there are rapid, erratic electrical impulses causing your ventricles to quiver uselessly instead of pumping blood.  Certain heart conditions can lead to sudden cardiac arrest such as coronary artery disease, heart attack, enlarged heart, valvular heart disease, congenital heart disease, or electrical problems in the heart.

Cardiac arrest can be reversible in some victims if it is treated within a matter of minutes.  The first thing to do is to call 9-1-1 and to start CPR right away.  Ideally, if there is an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) available, use it as soon as possible.  If two people are nearby to help, one should begin CPR immediately, while the other calls for an ambulance and finds an AED. 

What is a heart attack?

More than a million Americans have heart attacks each year.  A heart attack or myocardial infarction (MI) is permanent damage to the heart muscle.  “Myo” means muscle, “cardial” refers to the heart, and “infarction” means death of tissue due to lack of blood supple. 

A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart is blocked making it a circulation problem and NOT an electrical malfunction of the heart like cardiac arrest is.  A blocked artery prevents oxygen-rich blood from reaching a section of the heart.  If the blocked artery is not reopened quickly, the part of the heart normally nourished by that artery begins to die. 

Symptoms of a heart attack can either be immediate or may include intense discomfort in the chest or other areas of the upper body, shortness of breath, cold sweats, and/or nausea or vomiting.  Symptoms however, can also start slowly and can persist for hours, days or weeks before a heart attack actually occurs.  Unlike cardiac arrest, in a heart attack, the heart usually does not stop beating.  But the longer a person goes without treatment for a heart attack, the greater damage there will be to the heart. 

In most cases heart attacks are caused by coronary heart disease which is where the coronary arteries that supply the heart with oxygen-rich blood become narrow or blocked completely. 

Call 9-1-1 when a person is having a heart attack.  Every minute counts. The sooner a person can get to a hospital for emergency help, the more likely they may survive.  Once heart attack is diagnoses, treatment begins immediately either in the ambulance or emergency room.  Generally drugs and surgical procedures are used to treat a heart attack.