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How to Distinguish Between Heart Attack vs Sudden Cardiac Arrest

A young man holding his chest in pain, indicating a possible heart attack or cardiac arrest.
June 28, 2024
by Dr. Karthigesan

Many people use the terms heart attack and sudden cardiac arrest interchangeably. Yet, they describe distinct heart emergencies. Grasping the distinctions between heart attack and sudden cardiac arrest is crucial for the correct emergency responses.

This article will enlighten you about these differences, their causes, and appropriate actions, such as heart rhythm treatments, during these critical times. By the conclusion, you will be better equipped to understand these distinct heart conditions.

Understanding Heart Attack vs Sudden Cardiac Arrest

In discussing heart-related emergencies, it is vital to state that a heart attack and sudden cardiac arrest are different, though often confused.

A heart attack is essentially a circulation issue. This happens when the heart's blood flow is restricted, often due to a clot or buildup in the arteries. This blockage stops oxygenated blood from reaching the heart's muscles, potentially causing heart tissue damage. The symptoms may develop slowly, sometimes lasting hours, providing a window for intervention.

Conversely, sudden cardiac arrest is an electrical issue within the heart. It occurs abruptly, causing the heart to stop beating when its electrical system malfunctions. This failure prevents the heart from pumping blood to the body, leading to a loss of consciousness and, if not treated immediately, death within minutes.

Understanding these differences is crucial for healthcare professionals and you, as the initial responses to each condition differ significantly. Knowing what each condition indeed involves allows for better preparedness in managing these life-threatening situations.

Causes of Heart Attack & Cardiac Arrest

Exploring the causes of both heart attack and sudden cardiac arrest is essential for understanding their differences. Here are the main causes for each condition:
Heart Attack

  • Problems with blood circulation, specifically blockages in the coronary arteries.
  • Coronary artery disease occurs due to the buildup of fatty deposits within the arteries.
  • Emotional stress, potentially elevating blood pressure and heart rate temporarily, particularly in those already at risk.

Cardiac Arrest

  • Heart’s electrical malfunctions.
  • Heart’s failure to pump blood efficiently.
  • Triggers may include severe heart attacks, respiratory issues, and excessive drug use.

Knowing these causes helps you react quickly and correctly, possibly saving lives.

Symptoms of Heart Attack vs Cardiac Arrest

Timely and effective intervention requires recognising the symptoms of both a heart attack and sudden cardiac arrest. Here are the key symptoms for each condition:
Heart Attack

  • Chest discomfort or pain, feeling like pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain.
  • Symptom variations between genders. Men often experience chest pain and breathlessness, while women may have nausea, vomiting, and pain in the back or jaw.

Cardiac Arrest

  • Sudden and severe symptoms, appearing without prior warning.
  • Loss of consciousness due to the heart’s failure to pump blood is the primary symptom.
  • Other indicators just before the event may include rapid heartbeat or chest pain.

By clearly grasping these symptoms and linking them to their causes, we enhance our capability to manage these emergencies efficiently.

Link Between Heart Attack and Sudden Cardiac Arrest

A heart attack happens when oxygen-rich blood flow to a heart muscle part is blocked, potentially causing muscle damage or destruction. This damage might disrupt the heart's normal electrical pathways, leading to severe arrhythmias like ventricular fibrillation. Such arrhythmias can halt the heart suddenly, resulting in sudden cardiac arrest. The time post-heart attack is critical as the risk for sudden cardiac arrest increases.

Recognising this connection highlights the need for prompt and appropriate action in these emergencies. By staying informed, you are better prepared to act quickly should these situations arise, potentially saving your life or that of another.

Also Read: How an Abnormal Heartbeat Leads to Sudden Cardiac arrest

Emergency Response for Heart Attack

When you suspect a heart attack in someone, your immediate steps can greatly affect their survival chances. Here is what to do:

  • Immediately call for emergency services because every minute counts.
  • Keep them comfortable and monitor for any changes.
  • Be ready to perform CPR if needed and use an AED if available.

The urgency of these actions is paramount. Knowing how to respond if someone undergoes a cardiac arrest is equally vital and can be life-saving.

Emergency Response for Sudden Cardiac Arrest

If someone is experiencing a cardiac arrest, your immediate actions can be the thin line between life and death. Here is your action plan:

  1. Call for help or dial for emergency medical services without delay. Speed is crucial.
  2. CPR (Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation): Start CPR if the person is unresponsive and not breathing. Perform chest compressions hard and fast at a rate of 100 to 120 per minute. Include rescue breaths if trained. If not, proceed with hands-on CPR.
  3. Use an AED (Automated External Defibrillator): Deploy an AED when it is available. Follow the audible instructions, attach the pads to the person's bare chest, and, if advised, deliver a shock.

Understanding and preparing for these steps greatly enhances survival chances for someone experiencing sudden cardiac arrest. Every second is crucial, and your readiness can save a life.

Empowering Heart Health Awareness and Action

Understanding the critical differences between a heart attack and sudden cardiac arrest is crucial for a timely and effective response.

Dr. Karthigesan is the leading electrophysiologist in Chennai. He is known for his extensive experience managing such heart emergencies and stresses the importance of recognising signs and taking the correct actions. If heart health concerns you, we are here to help.

Contact us today. Staying informed and prepared enables you to play a crucial role in the survival chains during cardiac emergencies.

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