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The Difference Between a Heart Attack and Sudden Cardiac Arrest

The Difference Between a Heart Attack and Sudden Cardiac Arrest

Feb 8, 2019


A heart attack and a sudden cardiac arrest often get used interchangeably to describe a heart emergency, but the two terms do not indicate the same thing. The former is a “circulation” problem while the latter is an “electrical” problem.

Learn the difference between the two heart malfunctions so you know the implications for those in your life they may affect. If a family member has suddenly died from either, it’s important you have a clear understanding of the cause, so you can learn how it may impact your own heart health risk profile. 

What is a heart attack?

A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart is blocked by a clogged artery. When oxygen-rich blood is prevented from traveling to a section of the heart, that part of the heart begins to die. The longer the artery remains blocked, the greater the damage. That’s why it’s critical that someone experiencing symptoms of a heart attack call 9-1-1 immediately so they can get to an emergency room to begin treatment.

Symptoms of a heart attack are sometimes sudden and intense and include discomfort in the chest or upper body, shortness of breath, cold sweats, nausea or vomiting. More often though, symptoms begin slowly and can last for hours or even weeks before the start of an attack. If you or someone you know believe you may be experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, seek emergency care. Blood flow can be restored through medications, stenting or surgery to minimize damage to the heart if care is provided early. According to M. Scott Dawson, M.D., FACC, “early recognition of a heart attack is crucial as the amount of permanent heart damage is often dependent on how long the coronary artery is occluded.” Consequently, hospitals track for quality and measures the “door to balloon” time, aiming at less than 90 minutes for all patients.

What is sudden cardiac arrest?

Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart muscle malfunctions and stops beating unexpectedly. This malfunction is usually caused by a sudden heart arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) called ventricular tachycardia or ventricular fibrillation. When this happens, your heart struggles to reorganize its timing and can stop beating as a result. It can happen in just a matter of seconds. Death or permanent brain injury occurs within minutes if treatment like CPR or the use of an automated external defibrillator (AED) is not provided quickly. Dr. Dawson emphasized the “importance of calling 9-1-1, starting CPR, and the availability of AEDs in the community” can make the difference between survival and death from a cardiac arrest.

Sudden cardiac arrest is more common in people who have an underlying heart disease and can be triggered by a new heart attack or the result of scar tissue from previous heart attacks. In addition, sudden cardiac arrest is most common in patients who have congestive heart failure and a reduced ejection fractions (<35%).  If someone is experiencing sudden cardiac arrest, you should first call 9-1-1 and then start CPR right away

What’s the link?

Heart attacks increase a person’s risk for sudden cardiac arrest. Both heart emergencies require fast treatment to help save a person’s life.

Inspira Health joins forces with Cooper University Health Care to provide patients access to the most comprehensive cardiac program in South Jersey. Cooper and Inspira Cardiac Care offers a full spectrum of services from diagnosis to advanced cardiac surgery and rehab in convenient locations across the region.

To learn more about our heart health services, call 833-SJHEART or visit

Topics: Heart Health, Cardiology & Heart Health