The difference between a cardiac arrest and a heart attack

Often, the terms 'cardiac arrest' and 'heart attack' are used interchangeably, but this is incorrect. Each term refers to a specific medical condition, the treatment for which is very different.

What is a cardiac arrest?

A cardiac arrest occurs when the heart stops functioning adequately to sustain life. Think cardiac (heart) arrest (stop). 

The heart acts as a pump transporting oxygenated blood around the body. We can check how often our heart is pumping by feeling our pulse. Without a pulse, a patient will lose consciosness, become cyanosed (turn blue most notably around the lips and fingernails), and stop breathing normally.

In the early stages of cardiac arrest the patient may take infrequent gasps, known as agonal breathing. This is a sign of cardiac arrest and an indication a rescuer should commence emergency treatment.

What is a heart attack?

In medical terms, a heart attack is referred to as Acute Myocardial Infarction (AMI). Acute means severe or intense, the myocardium is the muscles of the heart, and infarction means death.

A blockage of a blood vessel in the heart, known as coronary arteries, causes a reduction of bloodflow to the muscle of the heart. This starves the muscle of oxygen and causes it to become damaged and die. The severity of the blockage will determine the extent of the damage. If too much of the muscle is damaged to the extent the heart can no longer function, a cardiac arrest can occur.

What causes cardiac arrest?

Cardiac arrest can be caused by multiple factors. Common causes differ depending on whether the patient is an adult or a child.

For adults, common causes include:

  • heart disease – the most common cause of reversible adult cardiac arrest (70%)
  • trauma
  • respiratory illness
  • asphyxiation: choking, hanging, drowning

For children, they may include:

  • Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) – this is the leading cause of reversible cardiac arrest in children
  • cardiac disease (usually congenital)
  • trauma
  • respiratory illness

What causes a heart attack?

Build up of fatty deposits (plaque) and cholesterol cause a narrowing or complete blockage of coronary arteries.

Many of the factors we assosciate with an unhealthy lifestyle, such as smoking, eating foods high in saturated fats, a lack of exercise, and stress, are major contributors to coronary artery disease. Hereditary factors can also make certain people more likely to suffer from heart disease.

What is the treatment for cardiac arrest?

Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) is the best treatment for cardiac arrest. The key to a successful rescusciation attempt is to act quickly and follow the Chain of Survival.

chain of survival | Sim & Skills | Healthcare simulation & clinical skills | Resuscitation

The basic steps for Basic Life Support:
D – Dangers?
R – Response?
S – Send for help
A – Open airway
B – Breathing - is it normal?
C – Start CPR
D – Attach defibrillator (AED).

Euro 2020 Public Access AED Offer from Sim & Skills

What's the best way to learn good quality CPR?

While the entire Chain of Survival is important, when it comes to the CPR procedure, the chest compressions are the critical component. Good quality chest compressions give the patient a much better chance of survial. To improve your chest compressions you need to measure them and the best way to do that is with a CPR feedback manikin.

What is the treatment for heart attack?

A heart attack will usually present as chest pain, often associated with the patient becoming pale and sweaty. Sometimes the pain radiates down the left arm, shoulder blades or back. You can also suffer a heart attack withouth feeling any pain at all.

What should you do if you think someone is having a heart attack?

Call an ambulance without delay. The call handler help to keep you and the patient calm and guide you through exactly what to do. If the patient is in cardiac arrest they will talk you through how to perform CPR.

Chest pain and other cardiac-related symptoms are always taken seriously and the paramedics will be able to to treat the patient and, if necessary, transport them directly to a specialist centre for treatment. They will use a cardiac monior to see if the patient is having a heart attack or not - to train Paramedics for this we supply Patient Monitor and ECG Simulators.

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