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The difference between cardiac arrest and heart attack

The terms are used interchangeably, but there is a difference between cardiac arrest and heart attack – a life-or-death difference.

“A cardiac arrest is an electrical condition where the heart goes into a bad rhythm and unless it’s corrected within seconds, it can be fatal,” explains Sasidhar Guthikonda, M.D., a cardiologist at Piedmont Fayette Hospital.

Cardiac arrest can be caused by a heart attack, but they are different conditions. Heart attack is caused by a blockage that prevents blood flow to the heart. Cardiac arrest is an electrical malfunction that prevents the heart from pumping properly.

“Most patients with a heart attack or a STEMI [who do not survive] die because they go into cardiac arrest,” he says. “When the muscle does not get blood, it goes into a fatal electrical rhythm.”

The symptoms: Cardiac arrest vs. heart attack

Heart attack symptoms include:

  • Chest discomfort
  • Heaviness
  • Labored breathing
  • Sweats
  • Arm or neck pain

Symptoms of cardiac arrest include:

  • No normal breathing
  • Sudden loss of responsiveness

Remember, a heart attack can be converted to cardiac arrest, so dial 9-1-1 if any of these symptoms are present.

How to treat cardiac arrest

If you see someone go into cardiac arrest, they need help immediately – every second is crucial. Here’s what you can do to help:

  • Dial 9-1-1 immediately
  • Find an automated external defibrillator (AED) if one is available and begin using it as soon as possible to shock the victim. Many public places, like parks and shopping malls, have AEDs on hand.
  • Start administering CPR immediately.
  • Continue CPR until paramedics arrive.

Left untreated, a patient can die within five minutes of going into cardiac arrest.

“Most patients who die at home [die] because it’s a conversion from heart attack into cardiac arrest,” says Dr. Guthikonda.

While these symptoms can be caused by medical conditions other than a heart attack, Dr. Guthikonda stresses that it is important to seek medical attention if you see any of the above signs.

“Those are reason enough to go to the ER,” he says.

Time is muscle: Call 9-1-1

Cardiologists say it again and again: When it comes to your heart, time is muscle. If you suspect you are having a heart attack, call 911 instead of driving to the hospital. It’s important to get an EKG at the earliest possible time from the symptom onset. Paramedics can do an EKG in the ambulance, which can be transmitted to the hospital.

“We can get an answer within 10 minutes on which way you are going,” says Dr. Guthikonda. “If your EKG is completely normal and you’re feeling well, we know it’s not a heart attack and they’ll take you to the ER. But if it is a heart attack, you’re bypassed from the ER, go straight to the cath lab and we’re here waiting for you.”

Visit Piedmont Emergency Services to learn more about how Piedmont treats life-threatening conditions. 

Need to make an appointment with a Piedmont physician? Save time, book online.

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