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Heart Attack and Cardiac Arrest- Do You Know the Difference?

Heart Attack and Cardiac Arrest- Do You Know the Difference?

You don’t have to be a big sports fan to have followed the headlines about Damar Hamlin, the young professional athlete who collapsed on the football field just minutes after kick-off. His frightening collapse and subsequent recovery has brought about a lot of discussion and an opportunity for some education about life-threatening cardiac emergencies.

In the minutes following Hamlin’s collapse, social media was full of early theories – was it a heart attack? Did he go into cardiac arrest? Sometimes these terms get lumped together, but they’re two very different emergency situations.

A heart attack occurs when a blocked artery prohibits proper blood flow to the heart. A blockage can build up and prevent oxygen-rich blood from reaching the arteries. Age, gender, lifestyle, diet, exercise and family history can increase your risk of having a life-threatening heart attack. Symptoms of a heart attack can start slowly with mild symptoms or can be immediate and intense and can include:

  • Feeling weak and light-headed
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck or back
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms or shoulders
  • Unexplained tiredness
  • Nausea or vomiting

On the other hand, a cardiac arrest – sometimes called sudden cardiac arrest or sudden cardiac death means that the heart completely stops. Cardiac arrest can happen when the heart’s electrical system stops functioning properly or an arrhythmia interferes with or prevents the heart from beating. This disruption in the heartbeat prohibits blood flow to the brain, lungs or other major organs causing unconsciousness and death, if not treated immediately. In more than half the cases, sudden cardiac arrest happens with no prior symptoms. Symptoms may include:

  • Dizziness
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fainting
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Vomiting

While these two heart conditions are different, they are linked. Cardiac arrest can occur after a heart attack or even during recovery. And blocked arteries are a common cause of cardiac arrest. Having a heart attack increases a person’s risk of cardiac arrest by a staggering 75 percent. Other heart conditions including cardiomyopathy, heart failure and ventricular fibrillation can disrupt the heart’s rhythm and lead to cardiac arrest.

Timing is everything for both a heart attack and cardiac arrest. Call 911 immediately and never attempt to drive yourself to the ER. Emergency medical services staff can begin treatment upon arrival and can administer life-saving treatments while en route the hospital. If cardiac arrest is suspected, dial 911 and begin CPR immediately and continue until emergency medical staff arrive. In infants and children, airway obstruction is often the cause of cardiac arrest. An automated external defibrillator (AED) should be used as soon as one is available. Survival can be as high as 90% if treatment starts within the first minutes after cardiac arrest and the rate drops by almost 10% with each minute that passes.