What’s the Difference Between a Heart Attack and Sudden Cardiac Arrest

Is it a Heart Attack or Sudden Cardiac Arrest?

If you haven’t put much thought into the difference between a heart attack and sudden cardiac arrest (SCA), don’t feel too bad! Many people believe that a heart attack and SCA are the same thing and commonly use the terms interchangeably.

In a nutshell, a heart attack is a circulation problem and cardiac arrest is an electrical problem. Although individuals who have suffered a heart attack are more likely to experience SCA, the two cardiac events are very different! To improve survival odds, it’s important to gain a deeper understanding of the key differences between a heart attack and SCA.

What is a Heart Attack?

During a heart attack, an artery becomes clogged and cannot carry adequate oxygen to the heart. In many cases, the heart continues to beat normally but if the blockage is not quickly resolved, parts of the cardiac muscle will begin to die. Like all muscles, your heart requires oxygen-rich blood for survival. The longer a heart attack goes on without treatment, the greater the damage to the muscle.

Comedian, actor, filmmaker, and former convenience store clerk Kevin Smith (@ThatKevenSmith) made headlines last month by tweeting, “After the first show this evening, I had a massive heart attack. The Doctor who saved my life told me I had 100% blockage of my LAD artery (aka “the Widow-Maker”). If I hadn’t canceled show 2 to go to the hospital, I would’ve died tonight. But for now, I’m still above ground!”

Health.com notes that, “Recovery from a heart attack typically involves medications, changes in diet and exercise habits, and sometimes surgery. Happily, less than a month after his cardiac scare, Smith was back on Twitter announcing that he’d lost 20 pounds and that his blood pressure was “amazing.”

Symptoms of a Heart Attack

According to the Library of Congress, the heart is the hardest working muscle in the body. It pumps out two ounces of blood at every heartbeat. Each day, your heart pumps at least 2,500 gallons of blood! And if you live into your 80s, your heart will have beaten more than three billion times. That’s one hard-charging muscle, so return the favor by paying attention to the signals your heart may be sending you.

If you know what to look for, you may even be able to prevent a heart attack from occurring. Symptoms can occur hours, days, and even weeks before a heart attack. The most common symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • Pain or discomfort in the chest
  • Lightheadedness, nausea, or vomiting
  • Jaw, neck, or back pain
  • Discomfort or pain in arm or shoulder
  • Shortness of breath

Women may experience these symptoms differently than men. Even though heart disease is the number-one killer of women in the United States, women often fail to identify their symptoms as warning signs of a heart attack.

“‘Although men and women can experience chest pressure that feels like an elephant sitting across the chest, women can experience a heart attack without chest pressure,’ said Nieca Goldberg, M.D., medical director for the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at NYU’s Langone Medical Center and an American Heart Association volunteer. ‘Instead they may experience shortness of breath, pressure or pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen, dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting, upper back pressure or extreme fatigue’” (American Heart Association).

The key takeaway: listen to your body and don’t hesitate to seek medical help should you experience any of these symptoms.

What is Sudden Cardiac Arrest?

Unlike a heart attack, SCA can occur with little or no warning, as it did for SCA survivor Rob Seymour. SCA occurs when the heart suddenly and unexpectedly stops beating. Symptoms are immediate and dire: sudden loss of consciousness/responsiveness, lack of breathing, and no pulse. During a cardiac arrest, the heart stops beating and the organs of the body are deprived of oxygen.

When the heart stops beating, death can occur within minutes.

SCA can be caused by any number of events such as ventricular fibrillation, a sudden blow to the chest, electrocution, drowning, drug abuse, cardiomyopathy, and hypothermia. Cardiac arrest can be reversible if it’s treated in the first few minutes with CPR and by using an AED on the victim.

What You Can Do

If you witness someone suffering from a possible heart attack or SCA, call 911 immediately. The operator may be able to help you administer compression-only CPR to the victim. If possible, ask a bystander to locate an AED. To become even better equipped to respond in the event of a cardiac emergency, sign up for a first aid and CPR course. You never know when your actions could help save a life.

Get certified today. Cardio Partners and aed.com offer CPR, First Aid, AED, and bloodborne pathogen training courses in all 50 states in traditional classroom settings and in blended learning courses. To learn more about our courses or to schedule a training, call our team at 866-349-4362 or email Cardio Partners at customerservice@cardiopartners.com.

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