Cardiac Arrest Vs Heart Attack – What is the difference?

What is the difference between a Cardiac Arrest and a Heart Attack?

I hope I am not patronising anyone, but I for one never used to know that there was a difference between a heart attack and a cardiac arrest so I just wanted to do a quick blog post to clear it up because I would like to think I was not alone in being confused.
One important thing to mention before the explanations is that a heart attack is the leading cause of cardiac arrest.
Ventricular Fibrillation Cardiac Arrest
Chaotic Ventricular Activity Seen in VF

Cardiac Arrest 

Cardiac arrest is defined as “the abrupt termination of organised cardiac activity resulting in circulatory collapse, due to either electrical or mechanical malfunction” (Hursts Manual of Cardiology).
In THE PAD terms cardiac arrest is when blood is no longer being pumped around the body due to the heart developing a rhythm that causes it to stop beating. The most common of these rhythms is Ventricular Fibrillation (VF).
The consequences of a cardiac arrest are immediate with loss of consciousness, respiratory arrest (erratic or no breathing) and permanent neurological damage setting in after just 4 minutes. If there is no effort to resuscitate the patient (CPR/Defibrillation) pressure in the arteries and veins equalizes before circulatory standstill and death occur. 

To Treat Cardiac Arrest
CPR Cardiac Arrest
Image Credit
Circulatory support through chest compressions (CPR) helps circulate blood around the body. When you push down on the chest you are ‘squashing’ the heart and forcing its contents (blood) out around the body. You are mimicking a heart beat – though it is less efficient it can hold off the organ damage until further medical assistance is available.
Further medical assistance involves External Cardiac Defibrillation and reversal of the initial cause of the cardiac arrest- for example if a heart attack has occurred clearing the obstructed artery.

Heart Attack (Myocardial Infarction) and Angina

Like all organs and muscles the heart has its own blood supply, the larger of these vessels are called the Coronary Arteries. Over time (depending on diet, lifestyle and genetics) plaque called atheroma builds up in these arteries  – a few examples of a range of plaque build up is shown in the picture below.
Angina Heart Attack Blockage
Image Credit


When a partial blockage (like the ones shown above) are flow limiting this can cause angina. By flow limiting we mean that the narrowing of the artery, caused by the atheroma, is significant enough that it hampers the supply of blood to the muscle (heart). When a muscle has insufficient blood supply this can cause cramp. Essentially angina is a cramp of the heart caused by inadequate blood supply.
Imagine that the heart is a city with one big 4 lane road that runs into it. Over the years and due to poor council budgeting, the main road has started to crumble at the sides and pot holes are every where. Essentially the road is now down to just one lane it has a 75% blockage. Every year the city holds a music festival (exercise) and 1000’s of people try to enter the city on the same weekend. Sufficient traffic can no longer get in to the city when the city needs it most! The music festival is a complete failure with bands and fans stuck in a huge slow moving traffic jam.
When the demand for blood is at its maximum, this is when narrowed arteries can restrict blood flow – this simple analogy explains why angina most commonly presents itself during exertion/exercise or music festivals.

Heart Attack

A heart attack or myocardial infarction occurs when one of these blood vessels blocks completely. The most common reasons for this is a total build up of plaque blocking the artery and not just restricting flow or a rupture of the plaque that causes a clot (scab) that blocks the artery. When the artery is totally blocked, no blood reaches the heart muscle that is downstream to the blockage. If the blood supply is not returned then that area of the muscle is permanently damaged.
Heart Attack Myocardial Infarction
Image Credit
This helps to explain how some heart attacks can be major and how some can be minor. If it is a blood vessel responsible for a huge part of the cardiac tissue that is blocked it will be much more serious than if one of the smaller end vessels was blocked. 
Heart Attack Myocardial Infarction
Blockage Lower Down – Small Damage Area
Heart Attack Myocardial Infarction
Blockage Higher Up – Large Are of Damage
The damaged tissue can potentially create sites for re-entrant tachycardias (VT) which can lead into VF and is why heart attacks are the leading cause of Cardiac Arrest.
Treatment for narrowing includes medications, stents and bypass surgery which I will explain at a later date. In Heart Attacks stents, angioplasty or more invasive surgery can be used to regain blood supply to the tissue.
I hope this has explained the difference between Cardiac Arrest and a Heart Attack.
Time for some SEO
Thank you for Reading
Cardiac Technician
P.S. Remember your comments are always welcomed below and please share on your social networks if you found this interesting or helpful!

Comments 4

  1. This is no doubt a good information as that informs about the most hectic problem that is faced by many people, but to prevent at the time is good idea and for that proper training and guidance is required as I had taken from that helps me to save one of my neighbor life when he got the heart attack, regarding that I provide the ASPRIN that helps to proper blood circulation as he safely reach to the hospital.

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