“Heart attack” is often misused as a general term for a sudden problem with the heart.
However, there are important distinctions, between a heart attack and cardiac arrest. Knowing the differences can be a matter of life and death. Generally, a heart attack is a circulation problem and cardiac arrest is an electrical problem.
What is a heart attack?
Coronary arteries are a network of blood vessels that supply the heart with oxygen. If an artery becomes obstructed (atherosclerosis) or goes into spasm, the supply of blood is constricted and the heart muscle (often uncomfortably) contracts.
The experience of a heart attack is actually the end result of the deprivation of oxygen as parts of the heart begin to die; it can take hours to weeks to reach the breaking point. The heart doesn’t stop beating during a heart attack but can suffer significant damage, depending on the length of time it is short of oxygen. (1)
Signs and symptoms of a heart attack may come and go over the critical period before the episode; they include:
- pain, pressure, and/or tightness in the chest and/or abdomen
- pain that radiates to the back, jaw, neck, or arm
- trouble breathing
- loss of consciousness
- sweating, clammy skin
- heart palpitations
- general malaise or fatigue
In addition to the common symptoms above, women may sometimes experience heart attack symptoms that are atypical to those of men. These include:
- gastric pain
Thirty-three percent of heart attacks are not accompanied by chest pain. Because it’s a plumbing problem, heart attack symptoms can vary from person to person and episode to episode. (2)
Risk Factors And Causes for Heart Attack
A heart attack doesn’t just happen out of the blue; it’s the result of a convergence of diet and lifestyle choices with a bit of genetics thrown in. Risk of heart attack increases with age and men are more likely to suffer an attack than women. The most common causes/risk factors of heart attack:
- chronically high cholesterol
- chronic stress
- poor diet (inadequate vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, and healthful fats)
- sedentary lifestyle
- excessive alcohol consumption
- HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)
- previous heart attack
Heart Attack Treatment
If you suspect you are having a heart attack, call 911, 999, or your applicable emergency response service (or have someone call for you). The quicker you can get professional attention, the better your chances of preventing further heart damage.
As we mentioned, you may feel subtle symptoms over the course of days; if you experience some of the symptoms for a few days in succession or they repeatedly come and go, see your healthcare provider right away.
Once at a hospital, you can expect several tests to determine if the problem is indeed a heart attack. (3) Standard tests:
- Blood pressure, pulse, and body temperature.
- Electrocardiogram (ECG) – records the electrical activity of your heart via electrodes attached to your skin. Impulses are recorded as waves displayed on a monitor or printed on paper. Because an injured heart muscle doesn’t conduct electrical impulses normally, the ECG may show that a heart attack has occurred or is in progress.
- Blood tests – certain heart enzymes slowly leak into your blood if your heart has been damaged by a heart attack. A blood test will look for the presence of these enzymes.
Additional tests may be ordered, depending on your particular circumstance.
- Chest X-ray – an X-ray image of your chest allows your doctor to check the size of your heart, its blood vessels, and to look for fluid in your lungs.
- Echocardiogram – sound waves directed at your heart from a wand-like device (transducer) bounce off and are processed electronically to provide video images of your heart. An echocardiogram can help identify whether an area of your heart has been damaged by a heart attack and whether it’s pumping normally or at peak capacity.
- Coronary catheterization (angiogram) – a liquid dye is injected into the arteries of your heart through a long, thin tube (catheter) that’s fed through an artery (usually from your leg or groin) to the arteries in your heart. The dye makes the arteries visible on X-ray, revealing areas of blockage.
- Exercise stress test – in the days or weeks after a heart attack, your doctor may prescribe a stress test. Stress tests measure how your heart and blood vessels respond to exertion. You may walk on a treadmill or pedal a stationary bicycle while attached to an ECG machine. Alternatively, you may be administered a drug intravenously that stimulates your heart similar to exercise.
- Nuclear stress test – similar to an exercise stress test but uses an injected dye and special imaging techniques to produce detailed images of your heart while you’re exercising to help determine appropriate long-term treatment.
- Cardiac computerized tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) – for a cardiac CT scan, you lie on a table inside a doughnut-shaped machine. An X-ray tube inside the machine rotates around your body and collects images of your heart and chest. For a cardiac MRI, you lie on a table inside a long tube-like machine that produces a magnetic field. The magnetic field aligns atomic particles in some of your cells. When radio waves are broadcast toward these aligned particles, they produce signals that vary according to the type of tissue. The signals create images of your heart.
Depending on the results of the tests, you may be prescribed one of several medications to promote blood flow and lower blood pressure. Where indicated, your doctor may recommend surgery to clear or circumvent blocked or damaged arteries.
What is cardiac arrest?
All matter is electric, including the human body. Cardiac arrest is what occurs when the heart’s rhythm suddenly becomes irregular (arrhythmia) or stops beating due to an electrical malfunction. The disruption of blood flow to the rest of the body’s organs causes unconsciousness and can result in death if medical attention isn’t received immediately. Cardiac arrest happens fast. Symptoms include:
- loss of responsiveness
- loss of consciousness
- chest pain
- shallow or absence of breath
- blue discoloration of the face
- racing heartbeat
More than half of cardiac arrest episodes occur without prior symptoms. If you suspect someone is experiencing cardiac arrest, call for emergency medical response immediately. Use an automated external defibrillator (AED) if one is available. If the person isn’t breathing, perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) until help arrives. The American Heart Association provides instructions for hands-only CPR-you can find them here. Watch the video below for more information about cardiac arrest.
Risk Factors And Causes for Cardiac Arrest
Annually, over three hundred thousand adult deaths in the United States are the result of cardiac arrest. (4) Like heart attacks, cardiac arrest is an event that is a long time coming. Risk factors include:
- Previous heart attack – seventy-five percent of sudden cardiac deaths (SCD) are linked to a previous heart attack. The risk of SCD is higher during the first six months after a heart attack.
- Coronary artery disease – eighty percent of SCD cases are linked to this condition. Risk factors for coronary artery disease include smoking, family history of cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, or an enlarged heart.
- Prior episode of sudden cardiac arrest
- Family history of sudden cardiac arrest or SCD
- Personal or family history of abnormal heart rhythms, extremely low heart rate, or heart block
- Ventricular tachycardia (very fast heartbeat that starts in the lower chambers) or ventricular fibrillation (irregular heartbeat caused by rapid contractions in the lower chambers) after a heart attack
- History of congenital heart defects or blood vessel abnormalities
- History of fainting with unknown cause (syncope)
- Heart failure – a condition in which the heart’s pumping power is weaker than normal. Patients with heart failure are six to nine times more likely than the general population to experience ventricular arrhythmias that can lead to sudden cardiac arrest.
- Dilated cardiomyopathy – a decrease in the heart’s ability to pump blood due to an enlarged and weakened left ventricle
- Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy – a thickened heart muscle that especially affects the ventricles
- Significant changes in blood levels of potassium and magnesium (from using diuretics, for example), even without underlying heart disease
- Recreational drug abuse
- Drugs that are “pro-arrhythmic” may increase the risk for life-threatening arrhythmias.
Link Between Heart Attack and Cardiac Arrest
Heart attack is often a precursor to cardiac arrest. Most heart attacks, however, do not lead to sudden cardiac arrest. Damage caused by a heart attack-and the preceding risk factors-increases the risk of arrhythmia and subsequent arrest. (1)
How to Take Care of Your Heart
It’s simple, really. Avoid all the things we know are detrimental to the heart. Ensure adequate exercise and sleep, clean eating, moderate alcohol intake, quit smoking, avoid toxins in food, manage your weight, throw out your microwave, and pay careful attention to your body. A common sense approach will contribute to keeping your heart and circulatory system working at their best.