When you see a person experiencing a sudden onset of chest pain, you might think that person is having a heart attack. Or maybe you think it’s a cardiac arrest. In either case, you might be right—but these two conditions are distinct.

While people often use the terms “heart attack” and “cardiac arrest” interchangeably to reference an emergency heart issue, the two conditions are not the same. They can both cause significant chest pain and other similar symptoms, but they occur for different reasons.

Both conditions are emergency medical issues, so if you’re experiencing heart-related symptoms, including chest pain, call 911 immediately.

Heart Attack

A heart attack, also called myocardial infarction, occurs when blood flow to the heart is blocked. When this happens, oxygenated blood can’t reach a portion of the heart and that part of the heart begins to die.

The longer a person goes without treatment after a heart attack, the more damage occurs.

Risk Factors for a Heart Attack

Heart attacks affect both men and women, and they can occur at any age. Certain factors increase your risk of having a heart attack:

  • Being age 65 and older
  • Being excessively stressed
  • Being male
  • Being physically inactive
  • Drinking alcohol excessively
  • Eating a diet high in saturated fat, sodium, and added sugar
  • Having a family history of heart disease
  • Having diabetes
  • Having high blood pressure
  • Having high cholesterol
  • Smoking

While some risk factors, such as your age, family history and gender, can’t be changed, you can take steps to lower your risk by implementing healthy lifestyle habits.

Symptoms of a Heart Attack

If you’re experiencing a heart attack, you may experience:

  • Chest discomfort
  • Cold sweat
  • Lightheadedness
  • Nausea
  • Pain in other parts of the body such as the arms, back, neck, jaw, or abdomen
  • Shortness of breath

Women are more likely than men not to have chest pain as part of a heart attack and more likely to experience other signs.

Treatment for a Heart Attack

Treatment for a heart attack varies depending on the type of heart attack, with the most severe being a STEMI (S-T Elevation Myocardial Infarction). 

To prevent irreversible damage to the heart muscle and restore blood flow to the blocked artery, emergency cardiac care is needed. The gold standard of treatment is percutaneous coronary intervention, which can only be provided after a proper assessment is performed by EMS or emergency care providers.

Learn more about how Georgia Heart Institute and NGMC are equipped to provide life-saving cardiac care. 

Cardiac Arrest

Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart malfunctions and stops beating due to an abnormal heart rhythm. Think about it this way: A heart attack is a problem with circulation, while cardiac arrest is a problem with the heart’s electricity.

While cardiac arrest is not the same as a heart attack, it’s important to know that they are linked. Cardiac arrest can occur after a heart attack or during recovery.

Risk Factors for Cardiac Arrest

The risk of experiencing cardiac arrest is highest in those who are of advanced age. There are also other factors that increase your risk, including:

  • Being male
  • Family history of cardiac arrest or heart attack
  • Having a history of drug or alcohol abuse
  • Having a history of arrhythmias
  • Having had a heart attack
  • Having heart failure
  • Having ischemic heart disease

As mentioned above, cardiac arrest can occur following a heart attack or during recovery after a heart attack. While most heart attacks do not result in cardiac arrest, it is a common cause.

Symptoms of Cardiac Arrest

The first sign of cardiac arrest is typically a loss of consciousness, with or without the loss of a pulse.

Before losing consciousness, some people may experience a racing heartbeat, dizziness or lightheadedness, chest pain, shortness of breath, nausea, or vomiting.

Treatment for Cardiac Arrest

When cardiac arrest occurs, two things have to happen: the circulation of oxygenated blood throughout the body with CPR and the restoration of the heart’s normal rhythm with a defibrillator.

After the heart’s rhythm is restored, further treatment may involve medications to reduce the risk of experiencing another cardiac arrest, as well as treatment for the underlying cause of the cardiac arrest, if one is determined. If it was the result of heart attack, life-saving intervention will be performed.

Many people who have cardiac arrest have what’s known as an “implantable cardioverter defibrillator” surgically placed under the skin. This device sends electric pulses to the heart to control its rhythm.

Learn more about the advanced services Georgia Heart Institute and NGMC have to treat cardiac arrest.

Connect with our program

Both heart attack and cardiac arrest are emergency medical issues, so if you’re experiencing heart-related symptoms, call 9-1-1 immediately. If you have non-urgent questions about cardiac care at NGMC, please call 770-534-2020.