Medical questions & health advice by board certified doctors
"What is the difference between a heart attack and sudden cardiac arrest?"
I always thought that the two terms could be used interchangeably, is there a difference?
Yes, a heart attack and a cardiac arrest are two different things and both should be discussed in person with your primary care physician who can evaluate you. Most likely, what you assume both terms to mean probably fits the description of a heart attack, rather than cardiac arrest. A heart attack is a condition where a region of heart muscle is deprived of blood flow and begins to die. This occurs when a person has a partial blockage of one of the arteries feeding the heart (called atherosclerosis) and a bit of this blockage breaks away, causing a clot to form, which almost totally blocks the affected artery. The region of heart muscle that relies on this artery is then deprived of oxygen and begins to die. Heart attacks cause symptoms like chest pain, pain radiating to the arms, neck, back or stomach, shortness of breath, nausea, lightheadedness, and clammy skin. Frequently, if a heart attack is diagnosed in time, the coronary artery blockage can be treated with drugs, angioplasty, stenting, or surgery, which restores blood flow and allows the heart to begin healing. A cardiac arrest is where the heart stops beating all together. Almost all cardiac arrests are sudden. A severe heart attack is one thing that can cause a cardiac arrest, but they are also commonly caused by electrical problems in the heart and arrhythmias (irregular or rapid heartbeat patterns). The heart can also stop beating due to physiological problems such as significant electrolyte abnormalities, severe blood loss, severe hypothermia, drug toxicity, and assorted other things. Because the heart stops beating in a cardiac arrest, people who suffer a cardiac arrest are clinically dead. The symptoms of a cardiac arrest are those associated with death: no pulse, no breathing, no movement, and cold, clammy, pale, bluish skin. Cardiac arrest is treated with CPR, certain medications, and sometimes electrical shocks from a defibrillator. Some of the time these measures can restart the heart and allow the patient to recover, but very frequently a cardiac arrest brings a permanent end of someone's life. Both heart attacks and cardiac arrest are associated with risk factors or abnormal tests results that can be detected before something serious occurs. It is important to see a primary care physician regularly to have your heart health, as well as your overall health monitored. Only examination in person by a physician can determine whether you are at risk for either a heart attack or cardiac arrest.
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