Cardiac Arrest vs. Heart Attack: What’s the Difference?

June 30, 2022 1:51 pm Published by

man with chest pain

Heart attacks and cardiac arrest are both serious and sometimes deadly heart health conditions. While the two terms are often used interchangeably, the two conditions are very different.

It’s a common misunderstanding that cardiac arrest and heart attack are simply two names for the same thing. In reality, though, while they both disrupt the heart’s normal functioning, they do so in distinct ways.

The easiest way to remember the difference between the two is that cardiac arrest occurs due to a problem with the heart’s electrical system, while a heart attack is a plumbing problem.

Understanding Sudden Cardiac Arrest

Sudden cardiac arrest, sometimes simply called cardiac arrest, occurs when the heart stops beating suddenly. When the heart isn’t beating, it also isn’t pumping blood, which means blood flow to the brain and other organs is cut off.

Because sudden cardiac arrest cuts off the flow of oxygenated blood, the condition can cause death within minutes, unless immediate action is taken to restart the heart using a defibrillator—a medical device that shocks the heart to restore the heartbeat.

When your heart is functioning optimally, it beats at regular intervals. But sometimes, those beats get out of sync—a condition known as arrhythmia. Arrhythmias, including the heart beating too fast, too slow or irregularly, are caused by malfunctions in the electrical impulses in the heart. In some severe cases, these malfunctions can stop the heart from beating entirely.

That’s known as sudden cardiac arrest. The first symptoms of cardiac arrest include a loss of consciousness that may be preceded by a racing heartbeat, dizziness or lightheadedness.

Understanding Heart Attack

A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, occurs when blood flow to the heart is blocked, cutting off the heart’s oxygen access. When the heart muscle is deprived of oxygen, it begins to die, which is why quick action is needed when a person experiences heart attack symptoms.

Why did we call a heart attack a plumbing problem? It’s because a heart attack is typically caused by coronary artery disease, a condition in which plaque builds up in the coronary arteries over time. This plaque can eventually block blood flow through the arteries—or the heart’s pipes—either partially or entirely.

When the heart is deprived of oxygen, a person can experience a number of symptoms that vary in severity and intensity. Common heart attack symptoms include chest pain or pressure, pain affecting other parts of the upper body, shortness of breath, nausea, or lightheadedness. Women may be more likely to experience other symptoms, including extreme fatigue or malaise.

Other Differences Between Cardiac Arrest and Heart Attack

While sudden cardiac arrest causes the heart to stop beating suddenly, a heart attack does not. Instead, a heart attack causes the heart muscle to die gradually—and the faster treatment is initiated, the less tissue is affected. The heart muscle will heal itself in weeks or months following a heart attack, but the scar tissue that forms can increase cardiac arrest risk.

While it’s not common, it is possible for a person to experience cardiac arrest during recovery following a heart attack. Cardiac arrest, on the other hand, is not known to increase the risk of heart attack.

Other health issues can also increase the risk of cardiac arrest, including heart failure and ventricular fibrillation.


When your heart and vascular health is on the line, you need a team of experts. That’s what you’ll find at Magnolia Heart & Vascular Center, where cardiovascular specialists provide treatment for conditions including heart attack, cardiac arrest and heart failure.

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This post was written by Magnolia Regional Health Center

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