Patient Referral

The Difference Between Cardiac Arrest, Heart Attack, & Heart Failure

heart attack cardiac arrest heart failure

Damar Hamlin’s collapse on the field during Monday Night Football has brought increased awareness of the dangers of heart disease. The 24-year-old Buffalo Bills safety suffered cardiac arrest in the first quarter of the team’s matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals, requiring cardiovascular pulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

Although Hamlin is recovering well, announcers describing the scene of his collapse showed that there is a lot of confusion around the difference between cardiac arrest, heart attack, and heart failure. It’s important to understand each of these terms as heart disease remains the number one cause of death in the United States.

cardiac arrest

What is Cardiac Arrest?

Cardiac arrest is the sudden loss of heart function. Cardiac arrest occurs because the electrical system that keeps the heart beating malfunctions, causing an irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia. It can be caused by heart disease, lack of oxygen or blood loss, genetics, changes to the heart structure, high levels of potassium or magnesium, or even intense exercise if you have heart issues.

An individual in cardiac arrest requires immediate treatment with CPR or, ideally, an automated external defibrillator (AED) that can shock the heart back into its normal rhythm. This care is needed within minutes for a positive outcome. The immediate high-level medical care offered on the field is credited with saving Hamlin’s life.

Although they present in similar ways, cardiac arrest is not the same as a heart attack.

heart attack

What is a Heart Attack? 

Unlike cardiac arrest where the heart stops beating, a heart attack occurs when the flow of blood to the heart is blocked or severely reduced. It may also be called a myocardial infarction.

Most heart attacks are caused by coronary artery disease which is caused by plaque buildup in the artery walls. When the heart muscle becomes blocked, the heart can’t get enough oxygen. If this blood flow is not restored quickly, parts of the heart muscle will begin to die.

Symptoms of heart attack vary. Some people experience severe symptoms like you see on television dramas, but many people present with mild or no symptoms. Heart attack symptoms can include:

  • Chest pain
  • Pain that spreads to the arm, shoulder, back, neck, jaw, or upper belly
  • Heartburn or indigestion
  • Lightheadedness or sudden dizziness
  • Cold sweat
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath

Individuals experiencing the symptoms of a heart attack should seek immediate medical care. The longer the delay, the more damage the heart will sustain. An individual experiencing a heart attack may go into cardiac arrest. If they do, they need immediate CPR or treatment with an AED.

heart failure

What is heart failure? 

Despite the name, heart failure isn’t usually a sudden event like cardiac arrest or a heart attack. Instead heart failure is a chronic condition where the heart no longer pumps blood effectively.  The weakened heart cannot supply enough blood to the body’s cells, resulting in fatigue and shortness of breath.

Heart failure typically refers to the early stages of weakening heart. Congestive heart failure is a more advanced stage of heart failure where fluid builds up in the lungs, abdomen, and extremities. There is no cure for congestive heart failure. Treatment aims to relieve symptoms and prevent further damage to the heart.

Individuals with heart disease are at an increased risk of heart attack and cardiac arrest.

Crossroads Hospice & Palliative Care supports patients with end-stage heart disease. To learn more about our HeartLink program, please call 1-888-564-3405.


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