The terms heart attack and cardiac arrest are often used as synonyms for one other as if they are two terms to describe the same condition. However, that isn’t the case. While often misused, these two terms describe two different conditions that need to be treated in different ways. At the most basic level, cardiac arrest is a condition that is caused by an electrical issue in your heart, where a heart attack is caused by what we’ll call a plumbing issue, or something having to do with the flow of blood through vital arteries.
Electrical Problems
When your heart has trouble beating at a consistent and normal rate we call it an arrhythmia. An arrhythmia can be a condition you’re born with, or it can occur in patients over time. Especially in older patients whose heart muscles are weakened with overuse or just time. When your heart is unable to maintain the proper electrical current it can no longer properly pump blood to the brain and other critical organs and causes a patient to experience cardiac arrest. This disruption in electrical service is extremely dangerous and can be deadly if not treated as soon as possible.

Plumbing Problems
On the other hand, when a patient experiences a heart attack it’s due to their heart’s plumbing (not electrical) system working improperly. Most commonly this occurs when plaque has built up on the walls of your arteries effectively clogging them and making it impossible for oxygenated blood to be transmitted to the other vital organs. Unlike cardiac arrest, the heart doesn’t generally stop beating during an attack, however the risk of severe damage increases the longer a patient goes untreated.

How To Respond
Because a heart attack and cardiac arrest are two very different complications, they need to be treated entirely differently. With an electrical issue, the heart is stopped and needs to be restarted. In this case, it’s best to have access to a defibrillator. These are the machines you’re imagining from your favorite hospital drama show where doctors apply paddles to a patient’s chest to restore the heart’s electrical signal. Machines like this (called AED or Automated External Defibrillator) are more and more commonly found in public places. In the case that you don’t have access to this machine, it’s important to know CPR and be able to respond quickly. Remember, these tools are only to be used if there is no sign of a pulse.

In all cases, if you suspect either an electrical or plumbing issue has occurred, the first instinct should be to call 911. In the case of a heart attack, time is of the essence. Make sure the patient is laying down, administer any heart medication that the patient may have on their person, and monitor them closely as you await medical care.

Understanding the difference between a heart attack and cardiac arrest can be critical in helping a friend or family member survive it. For more information, or if you are concerned about your own heart health, contact us today.