You asked: Is cardiac arrest different than a heart attack?
In short, yes. Cardiac arrest and heart attack can be related in that one may cause the other, but they are distinctly different. Before we jump into the details, the main difference can be summarized as follows: a heart attack indicates dying heart muscle while cardiac arrest indicates a person dying. It might be helpful to remind yourself about the 3 main functions of the heart and how your heart beats normally.
Many people have a picture in their mind of what a heart attack looks like. You might picture an older person clutching their chest as they have the typical symptoms of chest pain radiating to the jaw and left arm. However, a large percentage of people will have what we call atypical symptoms. These are symptoms other than chest pain that are more subtle indicators of a heart attack, such as nausea, dizziness, abdominal pain, shortness of breath, or sweating. In particular, women and people with diabetes tend to have these atypical symptoms, which can sometimes lead to delays in diagnosis and prompt treatment.
Regardless of the symptoms someone is having, a heart attack is a heart attack. The medical term for it is myocardial infarction – MI for short – which is much more descriptive. Literally, it means death of the heart muscle. While there are a few varieties of MI that exist, the one that is most widely known is from a blockage that forms in the coronary arteries. It takes years, if not decades, for the blockages – called plaque – to build up. Plaque is the result of years of cholesterol and inflammation in the blood vessel wall. However, if the plaque becomes large enough to block the artery or it breaks so that a blood clot forms and blood can’t flow through anymore, the heart muscle that relies on that blood flow for oxygen and nutrients starts dying. The way to stop this is to open up the blockage with medications that thin the blood and a procedure called a catheterization that allows Cardiologists to place a stent inside the affected area. Catheterization involves placing thin tubes through an artery either in the groin or the wrist, advancing the catheter up toward the heart, and taking pictures of the arteries using contrast and X-rays. Once the blocked artery is identified, small wires, balloons, and stents can be used to relieve the blockage and restore blood flow.
This procedure must be done as quickly as possible though because once the heart muscle dies, it doesn’t regenerate. Instead, the muscle turns to scar over time and the heart loses some of the pumping function. Depending on how much muscle that artery supplied, sometimes this can be catastrophic.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the term “sudden death.” Certainly, you’ve heard of tragic stories where athletes die while playing sports or seen TV/movies where someone dies and is shocked back to life. Better yet, maybe you’ve taken a CPR course and learned how to check to see if someone’s heart is still beating and when to use an AED (automated external defibrillator). Cardiac arrest is a term used for when the heart is no longer pumping, regardless of the reason. It is the result of an underlying issue that results in no blood flow to the brain and other organs. In other words, unless that underlying issue is reversed and someone or something pumps blood for that person’s heart (CPR), they will die.
Important to realize is that you don’t need to know what caused someone to have cardiac arrest to help prevent someone from dying. The American Heart Association’s new Hands-Only CPR campaign makes it easier than ever to save a life. The key is taking action. If you see someone collapse, this is when to implement their recommendations. A key distinction is that while a heart attack may cause a scenario in which the heart is unable to pump, such as with an issue of the heart’s electrical system, cardiac arrest implies that the person is unresponsive and dying. Often times, this electrical abnormality – an arrhythmia – can be fixed with a shock to the heart. This is why AED’s have become common in various public locations such as schools, malls, and offices. You just have to know when to take it off the wall and open it up. Then it will give you instructions for what to do next.
In summary, while a heart attack may lead to a cardiac arrest, the two are not the same. Learning about the signs and symptoms of them through asking your doctor and taking a CPR course could help you be a life-saver… literally!
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