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Doctor Decoded: Heart Attack vs. Cardiac Arrest

These are separate emergencies—with different treatments.

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The doctor on your favorite TV drama says the patient had cardiac arrest. Is that just a fancy name for a heart attack? Nope: Heart attack and cardiac arrest are two heart emergencies with different causes and different treatments.

For starters, both are urgent medical emergencies. If you see someone having a heart attack or cardiac arrest, you should call 911 immediately.

Heart Attack vs. Cardiac Arrest

Before getting into the details, here’s the simplest way to understand these two heart problems. Think of a heart attack like a clog in the pipes, while cardiac arrest is like a power outage.

A heart attack is when a blockage in the blood vessel cuts off blood flow to the heart. Because of the blockage, the heart tissue doesn’t get the oxygen and nutrients it usually gets from blood. This causes the heart tissue cells to start dying off. The medical term for this emergency is a myocardial infarction.

Cardiac arrest is when a malfunction causes the heart to suddenly stop beating. This is a major problem: Without a heartbeat, no blood gets pumped throughout the body. This means all your organs—including your brain—don’t get the necessary blood and oxygen. As a result, the victim may lose consciousness within seconds, so it requires rapid treatment.

Treatment Differences

Because these emergencies have two different causes, they also have two different treatments. When someone is having a heart attack, doctors must work to open up the blocked artery. This may include methods like:

  • Medicines that help dissolve the clot
  • Balloon angioplasty, with or without placing a stent
  • Surgery, such as coronary artery bypass grafting

When someone is having a cardiac arrest, emergency treatment involves calling 911 and giving CPR. If one is available, you should use an automated external defibrillator (AED). An AED delivers a shock to the heart to help restore normal heart rhythm. Both of these may help the patient before the ambulance arrives.

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