Cardiac Arrest vs. Heart Attack vs. Heart Failure

What's the Difference?

By Dr. Claude Yancy

Many people tend to confuse and interchange the terms “heart attack” and “cardiac arrest,” but it is very important to note that these are two completely different medical conditions.
Understanding these differences can help save lives.

What is Cardiac Arrest?
A cardiac arrest is a sudden collapse in an individual who is non-responsive, and who has abnormal breathing. Abnormal breathing is either agonal respiration, or gasping, or not breathing at all. In sudden cardiac arrest, the heart stops completely. In this situation, it is important to call 9-1-1, and to administer CPR if necessary. Unless treated, a person suffering from cardiac arrest can die within minutes.

What is a Heart Attack?
A heart attack occurs when the arteries supplying the heart become blocked. The first branches of the aorta sit on top of the heart like a crown. They’re called coronary arteries. If you block these branches, the heart doesn’t get enough blood. The result is a myocardial infarction, which is the technical term for a heart attack.

What is Heart Failure?
Also called congestive heart failure, heart failure is a condition where the heart can no longer pump enough blood to the rest of the body. Heart failure is almost always a chronic, long-term condition, although it can sometimes develop suddenly. The condition may affect the right side, the left side, or both sides of the heart:

Right-sided heart failure means the right ventricle of the heart loses its pumping function.
Left-sided heart failure means the heart’s ability to pump blood forward from the left side of the heart is
decreased. The left side of the heart normally receives blood rich in oxygen from the lungs and pumps it to the remainder of the body.

Heart failure is often classified as either systolic (your heart cannot pump or eject blood very well) or diastolic (your heart doesn’t fill up with blood). Both of these problems mean the heart is no longer able to pump enough blood out to the rest of your body, especially when you exercise or are active.

In Case of a Heart Emergency
Despite the differences between a heart attack and cardiac arrest, both of these conditions share one extremely important detail:
In the case of either, it is crucial that you seek medical attention immediately. Otherwise, further damage to the heart muscle can occur and an irregular heart rhythm may develop.

If you think someone is suffering from a heart emergency, call 911 immediately. The person may need emergency care such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or electrical shock (defibrillation) until emergency medical personnel arrive. At the hospital, doctors can perform tests to determine the specific heart condition in question and decide on the best treatment.

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