Updated: Mar 3

No. The term "heart attack" is often mistakenly used to describe cardiac arrest. While a heart attack may cause cardiac arrest and sudden death, the terms don't mean the same thing.

What's the difference between a heart attack and cardiac arrest?

Most people do not know the difference between a heart attack and cardiac arrest. Because time is crucial to saving someone who is having cardiac arrest, it is important to understand the difference.

Heart attacks are caused by a blockage that stops blood flow to the heart. A heart attack (or myocardial infarction) refers to death of heart muscle tissue due to the loss of blood supply, not necessarily resulting in the death of the heart attack victim. It is likely to cause chest pain and permanent damage to the heart. The heart is still sending blood around the body and the person remains conscious and is still breathing.

Cardiac arrest is caused when the heart's electrical system malfunctions. Here, the heart suddenly stops pumping blood around the body. This may be caused by abnormal, or irregular, heart rhythms (called arrhythmias). Someone who is having a cardiac arrest will suddenly lose consciousness and will stop breathing or stop breathing normally. Unless immediately treated by CPR this always leads to death within minutes. Cardiac arrest may be reversed if on-time CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) is performed and a defibrillator is used to shock the heart and restore a normal heart rhythm within a few minutes.

While both heart attack and cardiac arrest cause serious problems and possible death, cardiac arrest often occurs abruptly and without warning. It was found that two-thirds of cardiac arrest deaths occur without any prior indications of heart disease, while heart attacks often have previous signs and symptoms.

Both are life-threatening medical emergencies and require immediate medical help.

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