Cardiac Arrest and Heart Attack: What’s the Difference?

I want to return this week to the subject of heart attack.  Patients often assume that people who die suddenly or need CPR—what we term cardiac arrest—have had a heart attack.  But the two entities are not the same thing.  While it is true that a person who is having a heart attack can have a cardiac arrest as a complication of the heart attack, this is just one of the causes of cardiac arrest.  These include:

  • Arrhythmia of the heart: ventricular tachycardia or ventricular fibrillation
    • Caused by a primary electrical abnormality in the heart
    • Caused by a heart attack
    • Caused by having a cardiomyopathy
  • Pulmonary embolism (a clot in the lungs)
  • Sudden loss of blood, like rupture of an aneurysm
  • Overwhelming medical condition, like sepsis (bloodstream infection)

Below is a graphic that nicely summarizes the major differences between heart attack and cardiac arrest:

Greg Koshkarian, MD, FACC


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Gregory Koshkarian, MD, FACC