Heart Attack or Cardiac Arrest? Knowing the Difference Can Save Lives

Heart attacks and sudden cardiac arrest, two of the leading killers in the U.S., can occur anywhere at any time.

Knowing the difference between the two could help save a life, according to Colleen Gavin, a senior health coach at Capital Blue Cross. Gavin, part of the Health Promotion and Wellness team at Capital, works with employer wellness programs to deliver educational presentations on dozens of health and wellness topics.

“A heart attack is a plumbing problem,” Gavin said. “Blockages prevent or restrict blood flow to the still-beating heart, and can lead to permanent damage or heart failure.

“Sudden cardiac arrest, on the other hand, is an electrical problem,” she added. “The heart just stops, often without warning, because the electrical impulse that keeps it beating is disrupted.”

Heart attack

Chest pain or pressure is the most common symptom of a heart attack, but pain in the left arm, jaw, or back, shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, cold sweat, dizziness, and fainting also can occur, especially in women, according to the American Heart Association.

Responding to a heart attack:

  • Call 911 immediately.

  • Help the victim sit down, rest, and stay calm.

  • If unconscious or unresponsive, call 911, and then begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

  • Loosen any tight clothing.

  • If prescribed chest pain medicine is available, help the person take it.

  • Unless medically advised to avoid it, have the stricken person chew and swallow an aspirin to help keep blood from clotting.

Sudden cardiac arrest

Pre-existing conditions like coronary artery disease, heart attack, and enlarged hearts, can trigger SCA. Warning signs sometimes occur, and can include chest discomfort, shortness of breath, weakness, and fast-beating, fluttering, or pounding heartbeats.

Signs of SCA are immediate – sudden collapse, no pulse, no breathing, and loss of consciousness.

More than 350,000 people experience SCA outside of the hospital each year, and about 90% die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Immediate bystander CPR can triple the odds of survival.

Responding to sudden cardiac arrest:

The CDC urges bystanders who witness SCA to act quickly regardless of whether they have had formal CPR training:

  • Call 911.

  • Start CPR chest compressions to keep blood circulating to the brain. Push down hard and fast in the center of the chest with about 100 to 120 pushes per minute. The American Heart Association recommends pushing to the beat of songs like “Stayin’ Alive,” by the Bee Gees.

  • Use enough force to push the chest down about two inches.

  • If feasible, have someone try to locate an automated external defibrillator (AED) while you continue chest compressions.

  • Continue CPR chest compressions until medical help arrives.