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Cardiac Arrest vs. Heart Attack: Know the Signs to Save a Life

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In January of 2023, Damar Hamlin, safety for the Buffalo Bills, collapsed on the field and went into cardiac arrest. After being resuscitated on the field, he was rushed to the hospital, where he was then sedated, put on a ventilator and listed in critical condition. At the time, Hamlin’s uncle, Dorrian Glenn, spoke about his 24-year-old nephew’s condition, stating the goal of the ventilator was to provide some relief for his nephew’s lungs, and the sedation is meant to help “his body heal a lot faster” than if he were awake.

Glenn said that Hamlin sustained some damage to his lungs, and doctors worked to get him breathing on his own again. Thankfully, Hamlin fully recovered and was cleared a few months later to resume training for the fall NFL season.

Cardiac arrest is often assumed to be the same thing as a heart attack, but the two have key differences. Being able to identify cardiac arrest risk factors and early signs in yourself and your loved ones could help you save a life. To learn more about this condition and what differentiates it from a heart attack, we consulted AdventHealth cardiothoracic surgeon David Spurlock, MD.

What is Cardiac Arrest?

One of the leading causes of death in the United States, cardiac arrest can happen at any age and can affect any person.

Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart malfunctions and stops beating unexpectedly. An electrical failure in the heart triggers it and causes an irregular heartbeat or arrhythmia. A person suffering from cardiac arrest may become unresponsive, unable to breathe or gasping for air. Symptoms include:

  • Suddenly collapsing
  • Loss of consciousness
  • No breath
  • No pulse

Other celebrities who did not survive sudden cardiac arrest include musician Tom Petty, who died unexpectedly in 2017 at age 66; actor John Ritter, who was 54 when he suffered an aortic dissection that led to cardiac arrest in 2003; and child actress Heather O’Rourke, who was only 12 years old when her life was cut short by cardiac arrest in 1988.

What makes sudden cardiac arrest so dangerous is the sudden and drastic nature of its effects. With only about an 8% survival rate for out-of-hospital cardiac arrest when treated by emergency services, quick medical attention is required to survive. In Hamlin’s case, he was quickly given CPR by medical personnel and rushed immediately to the hospital, increasing his chances of survival.

Causes of Cardiac Arrest

Heart attacks are one cause of cardiac arrest, but they can also be familial or genetic. Even more rarely, they can be incidental. “I remember one case I had where someone got hit in the chest and it caused their heart to stop,” Dr. Spurlock said. “So there are many causes of cardiac arrest, but the most common is heart attack.”

What is a Heart Attack?

On the other hand, a heart attack, also known as a myocardial infarction, occurs when fatty, cholesterol-containing deposits build up in your arteries and create what we call “plaque.”

A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart is blocked. Dr. Spurlock explains, “Unlike a cardiac arrest, heart attacks are a circulation or blood flow problem — the heart doesn’t actually stop — think of it as a mechanical rather than electrical problem. A blocked artery prevents blood from flowing freely to portions of the heart, and if blood can’t reach that area after a period of time, the artery begins to die.”

Symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • Fatigue
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating/cold sweats
  • Tightness, squeezing, pain or pressure in the chest/upper body (this feeling may go away and then come back)
  • Trouble Sleeping

Most often, these symptoms are subtle and may go undetected as they creep up slowly, sometimes lasting for days or even weeks before the attack. Many people brush off symptoms as the flu, stress, or simply feeling under the weather. Always seek help to be sure.

“Not all heart attacks lead to cardiac arrest,” says Dr. Spurlock. “Generally, your survival rate long-term with a heart attack is about 97 to 98%; with sudden cardiac arrest, your long-term survival rate is only about 50%.”

Causes of Heart Attack

Coronary artery disease is the primary cause of heart attacks. The plaque buildup narrows the walls of your arteries, reducing blood flow to your heart. And if this plaque breaks or ruptures, it can cause a blood clot in your heart.

A larger amount of plaque buildup in your arteries puts you at a higher risk for a heart attack, though many people do experience heart attacks with only partially blocked arteries.

Though the main cause of heart attacks, coronary artery disease is not the only cause. You may also experience a heart attack from the following:

  • Coronary artery spasm — known as angina, this severe squeezing of a blood vessel that isn’t blocked is often caused by smoking, high blood pressure and other factors
  • Infections — certain viral infections may cause damage to the heart muscle that can lead to an eventual heart attack
  • Spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD) — a life-threatening condition in which there is a tear in one of your cardiac arteries

Cardiac Arrest vs. Heart Attack

As you can see, though both are serious heart-related concerns, a cardiac arrest and a heart attack are two quite different conditions. Unlike with a cardiac arrest, the heart doesn’t typically stop beating during a heart attack. However, it is possible to experience both. “Some people have a heart attack with a blocked artery, which results in cardiac arrest,” says Dr. Spurlock. “Blood flow is not there; rhythm problems occur, and the heart stops.”

A cardiac arrest and a heart attack are both emergency situations and require immediate medical assistance. If someone is experiencing a possible heart attack or cardiac arrest, call 911 right away.

Risk Factors

Cardiac arrest occurs in both children and adults, but much more commonly in adults. There can be several contributing factors to future cardiac arrest.

“Factors include one’s age, structural problems with the heart — young kids will sometimes have very thick hearts or hearts that are not well-developed that can make them predisposed to some electrical problems,” says Dr. Spurlock. He continues, “Whether you’re young or old, sometimes your heart is bigger, which can predispose you to electrical arrhythmias that lead to cardiac arrest.”

“If you’ve had a heart attack and a vessel or artery gets blocked off, a large part of the muscle can be dead or damaged, which also increases the likelihood of an arrhythmia causing sudden death.”

Damar Hamlin’s young age, 24, and his status as an athlete are perhaps the most shocking details of his cardiac arrest. Dr. Spurlock explains that the causes of cardiac arrest in young people differ from those in older individuals:

“The most non-probable cause of sudden death from a heart attack in young people is having a blocked artery from plaque buildup, what most people think in traditional heart attacks.”

Other more probable causes of heart attacks in younger people include:

  1. Undiagnosed cardiomyopathy or hypertrophic cardiomyopathy that can predispose a person to an enlarged heart or a thickening of the tissue that could lead to a sudden heart attack
  2. Congenital abnormalities of the arteries, where the arteries are not hooked up correctly and can compress and lead to sudden death
  3. Undiagnosed arrhythmogenic issues where there is an electrical issue in the heart that was unknown that could have led to a sudden heart attack and death

Dr. Spurlock advises that adults should stay on top of their routine checkups and blood pressure levels to get ahead of potential arrhythmias. “If a parent experiences a heart issue in their life, genetic tests can also be performed on their children to ensure their risk factors are caught early,” he says.

Our vascular specialists can help you learn your risk factors and inform you how to lower your risk for potential heart-related issues.

Don’t Hesitate to Seek Help

“Early intervention is key to avoiding what might become deadly cardiac arrest,” says Dr. Spurlock. “The earliest signs to look for might be things you can’t necessarily see or feel, like high blood pressure and diabetes, but also weight and previous health history. It’s important to get your checkups, bloodwork and blood pressure done to look for any signs. If you control the risk factors, your outcome is much better.”

Most cardiac arrests occur at home. Performing CPR or even just compressions to the chest can improve the chances of survival until emergency medical teams arrive.

If you suspect you or a loved one are having a heart attack or cardiac arrest, call 911. It’s best to call for emergency help than to risk underestimating your symptoms.

Click here to learn more about how we can help keep your heart healthy, or request an appointment with a specialist at the AdventHealth Heart, Lung and Vascular Institute.

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