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Heart Health

Heart Attack vs. Cardiac Arrest: What Caregivers Need to Know

Did you know that heart attacks and cardiac arrest are two different things? Knowing the causes and recognizing the signs of a heart attack vs. cardiac arrest can make a life-saving difference.

Heart Attacks

Myocardial infarctions, popularly known as heart attacks, are circulatory events. A heart attack occurs when the blood supply to an area of the heart muscle is blocked. If the blockage remains long enough, the muscle tissue dies. Heart attacks range in severity. Some go unnoticed while others lead to cardiac arrest. Unlike cardiac arrest, a heart attack often begins with warning signs.

Watch for these symptoms -- especially if you or someone you care for is at a higher risk for heart disease:

  • An uncomfortable sensation of fullness, pressure, or pain in the center of the chest that may recede and come back
  • Pain in the arms, neck, back, or jaw
  • Shortness of breath
  • Clammy skin and cold sweats
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  • Neck and jaw pain, nausea/vomiting, and shortness of breath (more likely to occur in women)

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), treatment for a heart attack begins by calling 911 and seeking qualified emergency medical services. Thus, prompt recognition of these symptoms and appropriate action are essential. Make sure to have emergency numbers posted and that every capable member of the household can recognize a heart attack and knows how to call for help. Learn CPR and practice a response plan.

Cardiac Arrest

Determining heart attack vs. cardiac arrest rests on a key factor: onset time. Heart attack symptoms can last for hours and even several days. A cardiac arrest's symptoms usually begin suddenly and without warning. This is because a cardiac arrest results from a malfunction that disrupts the heart's rhythm. Proper rhythm is necessary for the heart to function. Another key difference is, without intervention, a person typically passes away within minutes from cardiac arrest. Heart attack victims often survive the onset of symptoms long enough to receive medical help.

Arrhythmias, which include a variety of irregular heartbeat issues, are the leading cause of cardiac arrest. Others include:

  • Recreational drug use
  • Changes in blood chemistry -- especially potassium and magnesium
  • Use of heart medications
  • Cardiomyopathy (thickened heart muscle)
  • Prior heart attacks

In 2016, cardiac arrest caused more than 300,000 out-of-hospital deaths in the United States. Rapid response is even more critical when the heart is no longer doing its job. If appropriate medical intervention is applied within minutes, many cardiac arrest victims survive. An automated external defibrillator (AED) is a device that automatically detects a heart rhythm failure and corrects it when possible. Posted in a variety of public settings, these devices save lives every day.

The AHA offers this advice on the warning signs and treatment for cardiac arrest: First, keep in mind that this condition strikes fast and without warning. If you suspect that a person has gone into cardiac arrest, try to gauge their responsiveness by tapping them on the shoulder and speaking to them. Note whether the person is either not breathing or gasping, and ask someone nearby to call 911. If one is readily available, ask someone to obtain an AED and follow the instructions. Begin CPR if the person experiencing cardiac arrest still isn't breathing properly. Using both hands, "push hard and fast," with compressions two inches into the chest at 100-120 times per minute. Continue pushing until the person begins breathing or more skilled help arrives.

Being able to recognize a heart attack vs. cardiac arrest is an important skill for anyone, not just caregivers. While quite different, they are both serious conditions and require urgent medical attention. Taking the right steps in the face of onset, including calling emergency services, can save a life.

Posted in Heart Health

Since retiring from a career as a medical, geriatric, and public social worker, Charles Hooper has published hundreds of articles and blog posts on a variety of topics, including health and medicine, politics and government, and advocacy. Charles graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master's degree in social work. He received an Outstanding Scholar award and graduated with honors from the University of North Carolina at Asheville, where he majored in sociology and political science.

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*This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute health care advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or physician before making health care decisions.