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What is cardiac arrest?

By The Health News Team | March 2, 2023
Person performing CPR

Do you know the difference between cardiac arrest and heart attack? If not, you’re not alone. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), people often use these terms as if they mean the same thing. However, although they are related — a heart attack can lead to cardiac arrest — there are distinct differences.

“Basically, a heart attack results from interruption of blood supply to the heart muscle, causing injury to the heart muscle,” says Dr. Bryant Nguyen, a board-certified cardiologist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital. “A cardiac arrest describes a disruption of the electrical system of the heart, which renders it unable to pump blood to the body. If a heart attack is severe enough or persists long enough, it can progress to cardiac arrest because of severe damage to the heart.”

Here, Dr. Nguyen answers more of your top questions about cardiac arrest:


Which is worse — heart attack or cardiac arrest?

The AHA reports 350,000 people in the U.S. die from a cardiac arrest every year. In fact, 90% of sudden cardiac arrests are fatal. But according to a 2019 Yale study, the risk of death due to heart attack is just 12%.


What causes cardiac arrest?

Many cardiac arrests are caused by heart disease, but cardiac arrest can occur in people without known heart conditions. The most common cause is an irregular heart rhythm, or arrhythmia, the AHA reports.

Other causes include:

  • Scarring of the heart tissue, due to a prior heart attack or another cause

  • Cardiomyopathy, or thickened heart muscle, as a result of high blood pressure, heart valve disease or other causes

  • Certain heart medications that can lead to arrhythmias

  • Electrical abnormalities in children and young people

  • Blood vessel abnormalities paired with adrenaline released during intense physical activity

  • Recreational drug use, including use of cocaine, amphetamines or marijuana


What are other risk factors for cardiac arrest?

The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute reports cardiac arrests can also be triggered by:

  • Heavy alcohol use or binge drinking

  • Physical exertion or physical stress

  • Drinking too much coffee or ingesting too much caffeine in powders, pills or energy drinks

  • Experiencing severe emotional stress in the prior month

  • Having the flu in the prior month

  • Respiratory arrest, often due to choking, drowning, trauma, drug overdose, poisoning, pneumonia and seizure disorders

  • Diabetes and changes in levels of electrolytes

  • Certain medicines, including some antibiotics and diuretics that can worsen arrhythmias

  • A hard blow to the chest, often during sports such as football, soccer, baseball, hockey, softball or lacrosse

Additionally, the risk of cardiac arrest increases with age. And men are more likely than women to experience cardiac arrest, but a woman’s risk increases after menopause.


Can someone survive cardiac arrest?

While less than 10% of people who experience cardiac arrest survive, cardiac arrest can be reversed if, within minutes, CPR is performed and a defibrillator is used to shock the heart and restore a normal heart rhythm.


What are the signs of cardiac arrest?

If a person suddenly collapses and doesn’t move, speak, blink or otherwise react and isn’t breathing or is only gasping for air, they may be experiencing cardiac arrest. However, signs and symptoms of cardiac arrest — such as chest pain, shortness of breath, fainting, dizziness, fatigue and racing heart — can appear up to two weeks before cardiac arrest occurs.


What should I do if someone experiences cardiac arrest?

  • Shout for help and call 911 immediately.

  • Start CPR. Push down at least 2 inches in the center of the person’s chest at a rate of 100 to 120 pushes a minute. After each push, allow the chest to come back up to its normal position.

  • If available, use an automated external defibrillator (AED) to shock the heart and regulate the heart rhythm. Turn it on and follow the voice prompts.

  • If two people are available to help, one should begin CPR immediately while the other calls 911 and finds an AED.

“Talk with your doctor if you have concerns about your heart health,” Dr. Nguyen says. “Heart-healthy living, which includes not smoking, eating healthy foods, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight and managing stress can reduce your risk of having a heart attack, cardiac arrest or other cardiovascular events.”

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