Heart Attack vs. Cardiac Arrest: Why They’re Not the Same

One is a plumbing problem, while the other is electrical

February 3, 2017

Viviana Navas, MD – Cleveland Clinic Florida Cardiologist

The terms “heart attack” and “cardiac arrest” often are used interchangeably, but they are not the same. While it’s true that having a heart attack may cause cardiac arrest, many times these occurrences happen independently of each other.

One way to explain the difference is that one is a plumbing problem, while the other is an electrical problem.

Heart attack: What happens

A network of blood vessels called coronary arteries surround the heart and supply it with oxygen-rich blood.  The heart needs this oxygen to function. A heart attack occurs when a coronary artery becomes blocked, which stops the flow of blood to the heart, says Cleveland Clinic Florida cardiologist Viviana Navas, MD. All or part of the heart muscle becomes cut off from its oxygen supply.

Less frequently, a heart attack also can occur by a spasm of a coronary artery, Dr. Navas says. During coronary spasm, the coronary arteries constrict on and off, which causes a lack of blood supply to the heart. A coronary spasm may occur at rest and can even happen in people without significant coronary artery disease, Dr. Navas says. If coronary artery spasm occurs for a long period of time, a heart attack can occur.

A heart attack damages your heart because of the compromise in blood flow stemming from a blocked or spasming blood vessel, Dr. Navas says.

Signs and symptoms of heart attack

Here are the most common symptoms of a heart attack:

  • Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
  • Feelings of chest tightness
  • Pain that radiates to the jaw or arm
  • Trouble breathing
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Sweating
  • Heart palpitations

Up to a third of heart attack patients do not experience chest pain with heart attacks, Dr. Navas says, and women, in particular, are more likely to have atypical symptoms.

Women may experience the following heart attack symptoms:

  • Gastric pain
  • Pain that radiates to the arm
  • Trouble breathing without chest pain
  • Weakness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of consciousness

“It’s important to note that just like no two people are the same, no two heart attacks are the same,” Dr. Navas says.

“Even for someone who has already had a heart attack, symptoms of another attack may sometimes be very different,” she says.

Cardiac arrest: What happens

When you suffer cardiac arrest, your heart stops working properly because its electrical system malfunctions. The heart beats dangerously fast. The heart’s two large chambers may flutter or quiver, and blood is not delivered throughout the body. This leads to a rapid drop in blood pressure and collapse of the circulatory system, Dr. Navas says.

In the first few minutes of cardiac arrest, the greatest concern is that blood flow to the brain is reduced so drastically that a person will lose consciousness, according to Dr. Navas. Death follows unless emergency treatment is begun immediately.

When a heart attack damages or weakens a significant amount of heart muscle, this sometimes leads to electrical disturbances that put the heart more at risk for cardiac arrest, Dr. Navas says.

Signs and symptoms of cardiac arrest

Symptoms of cardiac arrest may include:

  • Dizziness
  • Collapse
  • Chest pain
  • Trouble breathing
  • Blue discoloration of the face

“Some people experiencing cardiac arrest may feel their heart racing or they may feel dizzy,” states Dr. Navas. However, more than half of those who undergo cardiac arrest experience no symptoms.


For a consultation with a Cleveland Clinic Florida specialist call 866.293.0621,

or visit clevelandclinicflorida.org/heart.