What is the difference between Sudden Cardiac Arrest and a Heart Attack?

When it comes to heart attacks and sudden cardiac arrest, there can be a general misunderstanding that they are similar, if not the same, conditions. However, both are medical emergencies related to heart health, understanding the difference between them is incredibly important. A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart is interrupted, typically by a blood clot, whereas a sudden cardiac arrest is an electrical malfunction in the heart that causes it to stop beating entirely.

Action Plan

If you think you are witnessing someone experiencing a sudden cardiac arrest or heart attack, call 9-1-1, immediately. Acting quickly could be the difference between life and death and can greatly improve survival rates and limit damage.

Sudden Cardiac Arrest

Heart Attack

Sudden Cardiac Arrest

What is a Sudden Cardiac Arrest?

Sudden cardiac arrest is a medical emergency that is a result of a sudden, unexpected loss of electrical heart function, breathing, and consciousness.

Unlike a heart attack, where the heart may continue to beat and only the blood supply to the heart is compromised, sudden cardiac arrest causes the heart to stop beating entirely. Because a sudden cardiac arrest results in an abrupt, unexpected loss of heart function, breathing and consciousness, blood circulation to the brain and other vital organs cease instantly. If not responded to immediately, structural brain damage, or even death, can result in a matter of minutes. One of the leading causes of death among American adults is sudden cardiac arrest, including about 365,000 incidents per year, 95 percent of which are fatal.

Warning Signs

Although sudden cardiac arrests are typically both immediate and unexpected, studies of sudden cardiac arrest survivors have identified several common warning signs:

  • Dizziness
  • Unexplained shortness of breath
  • Chest pains
  • Seizures (usually in the arms or legs)
  • Feeling nauseated or vomiting about an hour before the event

As for what causes a sudden cardiac arrest, most incidents are usually the result of, or preceded by, pre-existing heart conditions such as:

  • Coronary artery disease
  • Enlarged heart (cardiomyopathy)
  • Valvular heart disease
  • Congenital heart disease
  • Electrical problems in the heart

Each of these conditions has the potential to create abnormalities within the heart’s rhythm, referred to as arrhythmia, which is usually the immediate cause of a sudden cardiac arrest.

At the first sign of a sudden cardiac arrest, call 9-1-1. Acting quickly could be the difference between life and death.

Lifestyle Changes

Surviving a sudden cardiac arrest is the first step in your journey towards recovery. Although many survivors experience physical, mental and emotional changes after the event, none are permanent obstacles that cannot be overcome.

Lifestyle changes after a sudden cardiac arrest could include:

  • Diet – Following a healthier diet is highly encouraged and certain dietary restrictions, including sodium and fatty foods, may be necessary.
  • Medical devices – Many sudden cardiac arrest survivors receive an implanted defibrillator (ICD) after the event. Ensure that you and your family are aware of and understand the device and its functions.
  • Medications – Discuss an individualized medication regimen with your medical team to determine what strategy is most effective for your health.
  • Coping – Surviving a sudden cardiac arrest can be life-changing and, as such, there can be several challenges that follow this significant event:
  • Fear – You may be worried that a sudden cardiac arrest could happen again. However, the best response to this fear is managing your health and following the advice of your medical team.
  • Depression or anxiety – Struggles with depression or anxiety following a sudden cardiac arrest are normal and can be managed. Speaking with your family, survivor groups, a counselor, or even your rescuer have proven to be an incredibly effective response.

Activity After a Sudden Cardiac Arrest

Following a sudden cardiac arrest, your medical team will likely advise a reduction in physical or strenuous activity. While such restrictions are usually temporary, it is important to remember that they are necessary and allow your body an opportunity to recover from an incredibly arduous event.

Some survivors even experience short-term memory loss that typically lasts from one to six weeks. If memory loss lasts longer, be sure to speak with your medical team.

[Back to Top]

Heart Attack

What is a Heart Attack?

A heart attack (myocardial infarction or MI) occurs when one or more of the coronary arteries, which supply the heart with oxygen-rich blood, is blocked.

A blockage usually occurs when plaque inside the artery breaks open and a blood clot forms in the artery. If the blockage is not treated quickly, the portion of the heart muscle that is fed by the blocked artery may begin to die. Every year, about 790,000 Americans suffer from a heart attack, 210,000 of which are individuals who have already had a heart attack before. When emergency care is provided in 90 minutes or less, the mortality rate for a heart attack is less than five percent. In most cases, Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) is the main cause of a heart attack.

Warning Signs

Get to the hospital quickly. The longer it takes to be treated, the more your heart may be damaged.

In Both Men and Women:

  • Squeezing chest pain or pressure
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Tightness in chest
  • Pain spreading to shoulders, neck, arm, or jaw
  • Feeling of heartburn or indigestion with or without nausea and vomiting
  • Sudden dizziness or brief loss of consciousness

Symptoms More Likely in Women:

  • Indigestion or gas-like pain
  • Dizziness or nausea
  • Unexplained weakness or fatigue
  • Discomfort or pain between the shoulder blades
  • Recurring chest discomfort
  • Sense of impending doom

At the first sign of a heart attack, call 9-1-1. Acting quickly could be the difference between life and death.

Lifestyle Changes

The vast majority of heart attacks are caused by known risk factors, many of which can be reduced or controlled. Adopting lifestyle changes can lower your risk factors and lessen the chance of having another heart attack, as long as you are setting SMART goals:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Realistic
  • Time-oriented

Some examples of lifestyle changes after a heart attack could include:

  • Diet – follow a heart-healthy diet that is low in cholesterol, saturated fat and salt, and is full of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Be sure to monitor caloric intake, as well.
  • Exercise – Exercise – Cardiovascular exercise can strengthen your heart, help maintain a healthy body weight, lower your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, relieve stress and enhance your mood. Walking, running, biking or swimming could improve your health. However, be sure to consult your physician to ensure which level of activity is appropriate.
  • Coping – It is normal to experience a wide range of emotions after a heart attack, including depression and anxiety. Maintaining a positive outlook is crucial towards recovery and improving your overall health. Never hesitate to consult your physician with any emotional or mental health concerns.
  • Quitting Smoking - You should not smoke. Smoking increases risk of another heart attack. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about smoking cessation programs and medicines. These can increase chances of quitting for good.

Activity After a Heart Attack

Until the doctor says it is okay, you should not do strenuous exercise. You should not lift, pull, or push anything heavy. Ask the doctor what types of activities are safe for you. If your doctor has not set up with a cardiac rehabilitation (rehab) program, talk to him or her about whether that is right for you. Cardiac rehab includes supervised exercise. It also includes help with diet, lifestyle changes and emotional support. It may reduce the risk of future heart problems.

Increase your activities slowly. You should take short rest breaks when you get tired. Ask your doctor when you can drive, go back to work, and do other daily activities again.

[Back to Top]

Get the heart care you need.
Let us help you schedule an appointment with a cardiologist.

Cookie Consent

We use cookies to improve your web experience. By using this site, you agree to our Terms of Use. Read our Internet Privacy Statement to learn what information we collect and how we use it.

Accept All Cookies