Cardiac Arrest vs. Heart Attack: Is There a Difference?

Heart health is an important aspect of your overall well-being, and it is crucial to understand when a cardiac emergency presents itself. There tends to be a lot of confusion surrounding cardiac events, and many people utilize terms like cardiac arrest and heart attack interchangeably. The reality, however, is that while they are both medical emergencies, they are not the same.

Below is a detailed look at cardiac arrest and heart attack, as well as their differences and warning signs. Being aware of emergent cardiac events, their differences, and warning signs could be immensely helpful in getting a person timely care.

What Is Cardiac Arrest?

Cardiac arrest is the medical term to describe an instance where the heart ceases to beat. When the heart stops beating, it stops circulating blood throughout your body and can cause tissues to starve from a lack of oxygen.

In an instance where a person’s heart stops, it is essential to get blood circulating and blood oxygenated as soon as possible as every second that goes by, cells within the body are starving and may die.

During cardiac arrest, the best chance of survival is quality cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) paired with an automated external defibrillator (AED). Cardiac arrest is a major public health concern as over 350,000 instances of out-of-hospital cardiac arrest occur per year in the U.S., and only 10% of those are provided timely CPR efforts and survive. This makes cardiac arrest the leading cause of sudden cardiac death.

To combat these poor statistics, the American Heart Association offers CPR certifications for civilians across the country, which can teach you exactly what to do in the case of cardiac arrest, like how to perform chest compressions and how to work an AED device. If enough everyday people know how to perform CPR, it could help to improve the survival rate of cardiac arrest in the United States.

What Is a Heart Attack?

A heart attack is one of the most common potentially life-threatening cardiac events in the United States. Every 40 seconds, a person in the United States suffers from a heart attack, according to CDC statistics. This amounts to approximately 800,000 heart attack cases each year in the United States.

A heart attack, also known as a myocardial infarction, is caused by a blockage of the coronary artery. This blockage can be caused by plaque buildup from a poor diet high in cholesterol, or it can be caused by a spasm of the coronary artery that causes it to constrict and reduce blood flow. The coronary artery is the main blood supply of the heart, and when blood flow is restricted or completely occluded, it can starve the heart of nutrients and oxygen needed for the muscle to contract.

If the blockage persists for long enough, the heart muscle may die, known as cardiomyopathy. The longer the blockage exists, the more likely it is that cardiac tissue will die. The death of cardiac tissue can be permanent and lead to further complications like heart failure and the heart stopping altogether.

How Does Cardiac Arrest Differ From a Heart Attack?

The main difference between cardiac arrest and a heart attack is that cardiac arrest is the complete cessation of a heartbeat, while a heart attack is a heart that is starved of oxygen-rich blood but still trying to work.

A great analogy to discern the differences between cardiac arrest and a heart attack are to think of the heart as a motor from a car. Cardiac arrest represents an engine that suddenly stops working. In this instance, there could be several factors that cause the engine to stop working, such as a damaged engine, a dead battery, or a clogged fuel line.

In this analogy, a heart attack is most synonymous with an engine problem due to the fuel line. When fuel, aka your nutrient and oxygen-rich blood, cannot supply the proper amount to the engine, it may start to sputter and work poorly. If the deficit becomes substantial enough, it may cause the engine to shut off completely.

Which Is More Serious?

Both of these cardiac events are classified as medical emergencies. However, instances of cardiac arrest have a much higher mortality rate than that of a heart attack. Many individuals can notice the signs of a heart attack and reach out to people nearby or call 911 for timely treatment.

In contrast, individuals that experience sudden cardiac arrest experience a near-immediate loss of consciousness and require emergency treatment and CPR to survive.

What Are the Warning Signs of a Cardiac Event?

Since heart attacks can lead to cardiac arrest and potentially death if not treated in a timely manner, it is important to be aware of the early indicators of cardiac events and know when you should get immediate medical help from an emergency department or ambulance. Below are some of the most common early symptoms of cardiac events to be aware of.

Chest Pain

Pain plays an important role within the body to alert you when you are injured or if tissue is being damaged. Chest pain is one of the most common symptoms associated with a cardiac event.

Chest pain can come in many different forms and severity. Some of the most common presentations of chest pain associated with a cardiac event include sudden crushing chest pain, chest pain that radiates to the neck, shoulder, or back, and chest pain that is variable based on activity level.

Difficulty Breathing

Another common symptom of a cardiac event is difficulty breathing. A key pathway of blood in the circulatory system involves unoxygenated blood going through the lungs to be oxygenated and pumped out to the rest of the tissues within the body.

If the heart can’t supply the lungs with unoxygenated blood or move oxygenated blood away from the lungs, it can result in a buildup of fluid, known as pulmonary edema, which may cause shortness of breath.


Lightheadedness and nausea are additional symptoms that can be experienced during a cardiac event. Lightheadedness may be explained by poor blood perfusion to the brain, which can reduce oxygen supply to brain tissue leading to lightheadedness.

In some instances, individuals may also become nauseous during a cardiac event. Cardiogenic nausea is a symptom that is seen typically in ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI), a common kind of heart attack. If nausea is paired with any other symptom, it may indicate a cardiac event.

Irregular Heartbeat

The heart and how it beats are perfectly synchronized to pump an appropriate amount of blood through your body. If the heart begins to beat irregularly, it could be a sign of trouble, especially if the arrhythmia is persistent or recurrent.

How Can You Support a Healthy Heart?

Cardiac events can be scary, and one of the best things you can do to help support your heart and reduce the chances of a future event is to support the heart through diet, exercise, healthy lifestyle modifications, and reducing stress. Improving your standard of wellness through these means can help your heart by reducing the risk factors contributing to a higher chance of having a heart attack or cardiac event.

Changing all of these factors alone can be challenging, and this is why many physicians will place their patients into a cardiac rehab program. Cardiac rehab aims to improve an individual's cardiovascular health in a safe and monitored environment.

These programs typically involve an exercise physiologist to monitor and provide workout recommendations based on an individual's level of ability as well as other services to help improve diet and mental well-being.

Carda Health is cardiac therapy brought into the twenty-first century as it provides the same service as an in-person cardiac rehab program but allows you to complete it in the comfort of your own home.

Utilizing remote monitoring equipment sent directly to your house, a physiologist is able to direct you through exercises to improve your cardiovascular health while also ensuring your vitals are well within a safe range. It is easy to get started at Carda Health.

Once enrolled, you will have a team of professionals there to support you and help you with improving your dietary habits, mental well-being, and cardiovascular health.

The Bottom Line

When it comes to cardiac arrest versus a heart attack, there most certainly is a difference. A heart attack is caused by a blocked artery that supplies the heart with blood, while cardiac arrest is a condition of the heart where it will stop beating. There are many potential causes of cardiac arrest, and a heart attack is one of them if it goes on for long enough without timely treatment from a healthcare professional like a cardiologist.

Cardiac events are medical emergencies, and one of the best things you can do is to try and prevent them from occurring or reoccurring by supporting your cardiovascular health. Carda Health is a virtual cardiac rehab program designed to do just that and afford you the ability to do it all in an environment that is comfortable and stress-free, your own home.


Latest Statistics | Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation

Heart Disease Facts |

Impact of Cardiogenic Vomiting in Patients with STEMI | NCBI

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