Difference between Heart Attack and Cardiac Arrest

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Aman Priya Khanna
Written by Rajath R Prabhu, last updated on 26 December 2022
Difference between Heart Attack and Cardiac Arrest

If a doctor tells you that someone has experienced a cardiac arrest and not a heart attack, will you understand the difference between the two? Most people use cardiac arrest and heart attack interchangeably, as medical emergencies affect the heart. However, there are key differences between these two cardiac emergencies. According to the American Heart Association, the difference between heart attack and cardiac arrest is a circulation problem compared with an electrical issue. 

The following blog compares the symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment of cardiac arrest vs heart attack. Read on to find out. 

What is a Heart Attack?

A heart attack or myocardial infarction occurs because of an interruption in the blood supply to the heart. This usually happens when a blood clot or plaque buildup blocks a coronary artery. This eventually restricts the flow of oxygenated blood to the heart. As the heart muscles receive less oxygen, it begins to die. The longer someone goes without treatment, the greater damage can happen to the heart. 

Symptoms of a heart attack can begin slowly and last for several hours, days, or even weeks before the attack. Moreover, not everyone experiences the same symptoms. Seek immediate medical care if someone is experiencing heart attack symptoms.

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What is a Cardiac Arrest?

A cardiac arrest, known as sudden cardiac death, happens when the heart stops beating. It occurs when an electrical malfunction in the heart causes an irregular heartbeat. As a result, the heart cannot pump blood to the brain and other organs, making a person unconscious with no pulse. 

If the person does not receive treatment immediately, he or she can die within minutes. A common cause of cardiac arrest is ventricular fibrillation (a type of arrhythmia). During ventricular fibrillation, the heart quivers instead of beating. 

Although cardiac arrest and heart attack are different, they can be related. Many cardiac arrests happen because of heart attacks; they can occur after a heart attack or during recovery. However, heart attacks mostly do not lead to cardiac arrests. If someone has a sudden cardiac arrest, you must call for emergency medical attention, give CPR and use an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) when available.

Heart Attack vs Cardiac Arrest Difference

So, is cardiac arrest a heart attack? No! Although both conditions are life-threatening emergencies, there are quite some differences between a heart attack and cardiac arrest. They are problems with different symptoms, causes, complications, and treatments. 

  1. While a heart attack results from a blockage in blood flow to the heart, a cardiac arrest results from electrical issues. 
  2. During a heart attack, the heart continues to beat. However, in cardiac arrest, the heart stops beating and pumping blood to the vital organs. 

The following table compares the symptoms, causes, and risk factors of cardiac arrest vs heart attack. 

Parameter Heart Attack Cardiac Arrest
  1. Chest pain (most common symptom)
  2. Heaviness or discomfort in the centre or left side of the chest
  3. Pain in one or both arms, shoulders, back, neck, or jaw
  4. Shortness of breath while resting or light activity (more common in older adults)
  5. Sweating
  6. Nausea and vomiting
  7. Irregular or rapid heart rate
  8. Lightheadedness or dizziness
  9. Feeling unusually tired (more common in women)
  1. Racing heartbeat
  2. Heart palpitations or chest pain
  3. Shortness of breath
  4. Lightheadedness or dizziness
  5. Fatigue or weakness
  6. Nausea and vomiting
  7. Difficulty breathing or no breathing
  8. No pulse
  9. Unconsciousness
  1. Coronary artery diseasecomplete or partial blockage of a coronary artery due to plaque buildup

Other causes include:

  1. Coronary artery spasm: tightening of the muscles in the wall of an artery
  2. Certain infections: infections like COVID-19 can cause heart muscle damage
  3. Spontaneous coronary artery dissection: a life-threatening condition caused by a tear in the heart artery

It happens due to an abnormal heart rhythm resulting from the incorrect working of the heart’s electrical system. Life-threatening arrhythmias can result from pre-existing heart conditions, such as:

  1. Heart attack
  2. Coronary artery disease
  3. Heart valve disease
  4. Cardiomyopathy: enlarged heart
  5. Problems in the heart’s electrical system 
  6. Congenital heart disease
Risk Factors
  1. Men older than 45 and women older than 55
  2. Smoking
  3. Obesity
  4. Diabetes
  5. High cholesterol
  6. High blood pressure
  7. Unhealthy diet
  8. Sedentary lifestyle
  9. Stress
  10. Metabolic syndrome
  11. Illegal drug use
  12. Autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus
  13. Family history of heart attacks
  14. A history of preeclampsia: a condition that causes high blood pressure during pregnancy
  1. Smoking
  2. High blood pressure
  3. High cholesterol
  4. Family history of heart disease
  5. History of a previous heart attack
  6. An enlarged heart
  7. Irregularly shaped heart valves
  8. Sedentary lifestyle
  9. Obesity
  10. Men older than 45 and women older than 55
  11. Male gender
  12. Substance abuse
  13. Nutritional imbalance, like low potassium or magnesium
  14. Chronic kidney disease
  15. Obstructive sleep apnea

A healthcare professional can determine sudden cardiac arrest vs heart attack by conducting certain tests. Therefore, it is important to get immediate medical attention if someone is experiencing the symptoms of a heart attack or cardiac arrest. The following table compares the diagnosis, treatment, and complications of a cardiac arrest vs heart attack.

Parameters Heart Attack Cardiac Arrest
  1. Physical exam
  2. Vital measures: blood pressure, pulse, and temperature. 
  3. Electrocardiogram: used to check the heart’s electrical activity
  4. Echocardiogram: an ultrasound that creates images of the moving heart and helps identify if an area of the heart has been damaged
  5. Blood tests: used to check for cardiac markers that leak into your blood after heart damage from a heart attack
  6. Chest X-ray: used to check the condition and size of the heart
  7. Angiogram: uses dye to clearly show the images of the arteries and any possible blockage
  8. Cardiac CT or MRI scan: helps identify the severity of heart damage

A cardiac arrest requires immediate resuscitation. If you survive a sudden cardiac arrest, the doctor may perform diagnostic tests to determine its cause. These tests include:

  1. Electrocardiogram: the test reveals heart rhythm disturbances and detects abnormal electrical patterns
  2. Blood tests: used to check potassium, magnesium, and hormonal levels that can affect the ability of the heart
  3. Chest X-ray: used to check the size and shape of the heart and blood vessels
  4. Echocardiogram: identifies whether a heart attack has damaged an area of the heart or if there are any problems with the heart valves
  5. Nuclear scan: used to identify blood flow problems to the heart
  6. Angiogram: uses dye to clearly show the images of the arteries and any possible blockage

Depending on the severity of the emergency, a doctor may recommend the following treatment procedures:

  1. Coronary angioplasty and stenting
  2. Coronary Artery Bypass Surgery (CABG)
  3. Heart valve replacement
  4. Pacemaker implantation
  5. Heart transplant (in some cases)

The doctor may also prescribe medications to help with recovery or prevent another heart attack:

  1. Anticoagulant: reduces blood clotting
  2. Blood-thinning medications 
  3. Clot busters 
  4. Nitroglycerin: improves blood flow to the heart and treats sudden chest pain
  5. ACE inhibitors: lower blood pressure and reduce stress on the heart
  6. Statins: lowers unhealthy cholesterol levels
  7. Beta-blockers: slows the heartbeat and decrease blood pressure

A cardiac arrest requires immediate treatment for survival, which includes:

  1. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation or CPR: emergency procedure to restore breathing and heartbeat
  2. Defibrillation: defibrillators such as AED deliver an electric shock to the heart to resume normal heart rhythm

Once the heart starts beating again, the doctor starts other treatments to lower the risk of another cardiac arrest:

  1. Drugs: to treat long-term arrhythmias and their complications
  2. Implantable cardioverter-defibrillator or ICD: a battery-powered unit inserted in the body to constantly monitor the heart rhythm
  3. Coronary bypass surgery: improves blood supply to the heart
  4. Coronary angioplasty: opens blocked coronary arteries, improving blood flow to the heart
  5. Radiofrequency catheter ablation: blocks a single abnormal electric pathway
  6. Corrective heart surgery: improves heart rate and blood flow by treating a congenital heart deformity, diseased heart muscle tissue, or a faulty valve

A delay in treatment can cause a cardiac arrest. Other complications after a heart attack include:

  1. Heart failure
  2. Arrhythmia
  3. Heart rupture
  4. Cardiogenic shock

A delay in treatment can cause permanent brain and organ disability or injury. The effect on the brain can have long-term effects, such as:

  1. Fatigue
  2. Memory problems
  3. Personality changes
  4. Balance issues
  5. Dizziness
  6. Problems with language and speech
  7. Permanent brain damage

Stroke vs Heart Attack vs Cardiac Arrest

Another similar emergency condition that people often confuse with a heart attack or cardiac arrest is a stroke. The following is the difference between a stroke vs heart attack vs cardiac arrest:

  1. A stroke happens when there is a reduction or interruption in the blood supply to the brain, depriving the brain tissue of nutrients and oxygen. 
  2. A heart attack happens when the blood supply to the heart is interrupted or blocked. 
  3. A cardiac arrest occurs when the heart malfunctions and stops beating suddenly.


In summary, the basic difference between heart attack and cardiac arrest is that while the former occurs due to an interruption in the blood supply to the heart, the latter occurs when the heart stops beating because of an electrical problem. Several symptoms are experienced during a heart attack, which is not similar for everyone. However, the most common symptoms of cardiac arrest include lack of breathing, unconsciousness, and no pulse. You can manage the risks of both sudden cardiac arrest vs heart attack by adopting certain lifestyle changes and taking the medicines prescribed by the doctor. 

For any more doubts regarding cardiac arrest vs heart attack, you can consult an expert at HexaHealth. Our team will guide you through the symptoms, causes, and treatments of these life-threatening conditions. Moreover, we will help you with tips to prevent a cardiac arrest vs attack. If you or your loved ones experience any heart attack or cardiac arrest symptoms, seek medical attention immediately by contacting HexaHealth experts.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can a healthy person get cardiac arrest?

Yes, a sudden cardiac arrest can happen to a healthy person without any known heart disease. However, life-threatening arrhythmia usually develops in people with pre-existing heart conditions.

Is cardiac arrest the same as a heart attack?

While cardiac arrest and heart attack are life-threatening emergencies, they differ. The basic difference between cardiac arrest vs heart attack is that while the former results from an electrical issue, the latter is related to a blood circulation problem.

What comes first, cardiac arrest or heart attack?

A heart attack occurs first due to a blockage in the coronary artery, resulting from plaque buildup. A cardiac arrest can occur after a heart attack. While a heart attack does not always cause cardiac arrest, it increases the risk of getting one.

Can you have a heart attack without cardiac arrest?

Yes, a person can get a heart attack without cardiac arrest. Heart attacks occur due to a blockage in the coronary arteries. However, heart attacks can sometimes lead to sudden cardiac arrest.

Is cardiac arrest painful?

Cardiac arrest causes a sudden loss of consciousness. Some people may experience chest pain during the initial seconds of a cardiac arrest. However, you won’t feel pain once you become unconscious.

Are there warning signs before cardiac arrest?

Yes, early warning signs may occur before a sudden cardiac arrest. Chest pains can start four weeks and one hour before a cardiac arrest. Other signs may include shortness of breath, dizziness, fainting, or heart palpitations.

Is cardiac arrest a quick death?

During cardiac arrest, the heart stops beating suddenly. As a result, the blood stops flowing to the heart and other organs of the body. If not treated promptly, cardiac arrest can cause death within a few minutes.

Are you alive during cardiac arrest?

The lack of blood flow to the brain during cardiac arrest makes a person lose consciousness. A cardiac arrest can become fatal if it lasts longer than eight minutes without giving CPR. Brain damage can occur five minutes after a sudden cardiac arrest. Therefore, the treatment for this emergency condition should start right away.

How long can cardiac arrest last?

The patient can suffer from severe and permanent brain damage by eight to nine minutes into cardiac arrest. After about ten minutes, the chances of survival become low.

Can people come back from cardiac arrest?

Yes, people can come back from cardiac arrest with immediate medical care. A cardiac arrest can lead to death if immediate treatment is not received. CPR can improve the chances of survival until treatment is received.

Does stress cause cardiac arrest?

High-stress levels can lead to depression and anxiety, causing increased blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar levels. This can increase the chances of sudden cardiac arrest. Mental stress is believed to directly impact the cardiac ion channels that control your heart’s electrical properties.

What is the longest someone has survived cardiac arrest?

Roberto, a 31-year-old mountain climber, spent 8 hours and 42 minutes in cardiac arrest during his attempt to climb Marmolada in 2017. He spent the longest time in cardiac arrest with full neurological recovery.

How long after cardiac arrest do you wake up?

About 80% of patients after resuscitation from a cardiac arrest do not wake up immediately after the return of spontaneous circulation. They may remain in a coma for several hours or weeks. It usually takes 48 hours for a patient to wake up from a coma after a sudden cardiac arrest.

Is there brain damage after cardiac arrest?

During cardiac arrest, blood circulation to the brain becomes interrupted, and consciousness is lost within seconds. If left untreated, cardiac arrest can cause irreversible brain damage and death. The longer someone remains in cardiac arrest, the increased chances of death after a neurological problem.

Why cardiac arrest happens at night?

Cardiac arrest happens after a loss of consciousness within one hour of the onset of symptoms. Most cardiac arrests happen at night because the heart rate slows dramatically during the night time.

Updated on : 26 December 2022


Dr. Aman Priya Khanna

Dr. Aman Priya Khanna

MBBS, DNB General Surgery, Fellowship in Minimal Access Surgery, FIAGES

12 Years Experience

Dr Aman Priya Khanna is a well-known General Surgeon, Proctologist and Bariatric Surgeon currently associated with HealthFort Clinic, Health First Multispecialty Clinic in Delhi. He has 12 years of experience in General Surgery and worke...View More


Rajath R Prabhu

Rajath R Prabhu

MSc. Clinical Research I PG Diploma in Public Health Services Management

3 Years Experience

His work in medical content writing and proofreading is noteworthy. He has also contributed immensely to public health research and has authored four scientific manuscripts in international journals. He was assoc...View More

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