Is sudden cardiac arrest the same thing as a heart attack?

6 Aug

red heart on black

by Carolyn Thomas @HeartSisters

One of the reasons that I knew I wasn’t having a heart attack even while I was actually having one was my very inaccurate perception of what a heart attack looks like.

First, I used to think that heart attacks happen mostly to men.  Old men.  Old fat men who are out of shape chain smokers and heavy drinkers.  Old fat out-of-shape smoking drinking men who one day suddenly clutch their chests and keel over, unconscious.  CPR.  911. Ambulance sirens screaming. Paramedics. Defibrillator paddles. That’s a heart attack, right?

Wrong, my dear heart sisters.

There is such an event, and it’s called sudden cardiac arrest, which can lead to sudden cardiac death (defined as death within one hour of the onset of symptoms).  About 75% of sudden cardiac death patients are men, so my stereotypical male ‘heart attack’ image was at least partially correct on that score.

The surprising truth is that, while sudden cardiac arrest is an extreme medical emergency, it is not a heart attack.

A cardiac arrest is more like an electrical misfire that causes the heart to stop beating and breathing to stop.

A heart attack, on the other hand, is more like a plumbing problem. It happens when the blood supply to the heart muscle is slowed or stopped because of a blockage or spasm in one or more coronary arteries, but the heart does not stop beating (unless the damage to heart muscle is so severe that a fatal arrhythmia – an electrical misfire – happens, triggering sudden cardiac arrest).

If the electrical pulses in a diseased heart cause the heart to beat too rapidly, it’s called ventricular tachycardia (V-Tach).  If the electrical pulses cause chaotic irregular heartbeats, it’s called ventricular fibrillation (V-Fib).

Sudden cardiac death can be caused by heart attack (myocardial infarction), but it can also be caused by drowning, stroke, electrocution, suffocation, poisoning, infection, renal failure, massive bleeding, drug overdose, motor vehicle or other serious injuries. Sudden cardiac arrest – not a heart attack – is considered to be the cause of death for Michael Jackson, for example.

According to the Heart & Stroke Foundation, Canadians experience cardiac arrest every 12 minutes (compared to stroke = every 10 minutes, or heart attack = every seven minutes).

Over 70% of all cardiac arrests occur in homes and public places. Most victims are men in their late 60s or early 70s. Their collapse is witnessed by other people about 55% of the time. The majority of cardiac arrests occur in residential locations, with fewer than 22% occurring in public places (including 3% in malls, 2.7% on the road, 2.1% at the gym, 1.2 % at the office).

Defibrillation, when used with CPR, can improve cardiac arrest survival rates to more than 50% but only if delivered in the first few minutes. For every one minute delay in defibrillation, the survival rate of a cardiac arrest victim decreases by 10%. But unless defibrillation or immediate CPR is available, an estimated 95% of sudden cardiac arrest victims will die before they can reach hospital.

What happens to those who do survive? Mayo Clinic researchers explain:

“Fans of television medical dramas like ‘ER’ have watched this scene over and over: a person in cardiac arrest is resuscitated with CPR or defibrillators, and ‘wakes up’ good to go. No lasting damage, besides a big scare.

“But in real life, of those who do survive, almost 40% may experience significant physical or cognitive impairment after sudden cardiac arrest.”

Heart disease, meanwhile, continues to be the #1 killer of North American women. Heart disease kills more women than men each year. Heart disease kills six times more women than breast cancer.  In fact, heart disease kills more women than all types of cancers combined.  Sudden cardiac arrest is one of the few heart-related emergencies that claim more male victims than females.  See also Myths & Facts About Women’s Heart Disease.

Find out more about the difference between sudden cardiac arrest and a heart attack, and why cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is so important. And learn about AEDs: Automated External Defibrillators.

Would you know how to respond if you came across a person suffering cardiac arrest? Read How The Bee Gees Can Save Your Life During a Cardiac Arrest.

See also:  What Sudden Cardiac Arrest Looks Like


© 2009 Carolyn Thomas www.myheartsisters.org

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♥   See this infographic about sudden cardiac arrest  


6 Responses to “Is sudden cardiac arrest the same thing as a heart attack?”

  1. Irene October 24, 2014 at 3:32 pm #

    Thank you for this clarification, Carolyn. There is one exception, though – women with cardiomyopathy face the possiblity of sudden cardiac arrest as much as men.

    Like

    • Carolyn Thomas October 24, 2014 at 6:10 pm #

      Thanks for this, Irene – so far I’ve been unable to find any journal references about this exception. I’m guessing you mean hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (most important cause of sudden cardiac death in young adults/athletes)? Can you please send me a link to any references you know about?

      Like

      • Irene October 24, 2014 at 7:30 pm #

        Hello Carolyn – I wasn’t quoting journal articles, I’m afraid.

        I have idiopathic cardiomyopathy, and I have been led to understand that that is the biggest risk of it – sudden cardiac death. You were saying that sudden cardiac death affects more men than women and that it is heart attacks that affect women more(if I read this correctly). And I guess my reaction was, well, if you have cardiomyopathy, it affects both men and women. More men may get one of the kinds of cardiomyopathy, but once you have it, I guess I thought the odds were the same.

        But believe me, I am no expert on this. Although I have known I have it for two years now, I am still learning about it, and still coming to terms with it.

        It has been wonderful finding your website – best thing I have found yet about women and heart disease. My cardiologist is as far from a fountain of information as you can get.

        Like

  2. Luisa May 29, 2012 at 9:04 am #

    Hello Carolyn,
    Like you, I “knew” I couldn’t be having a heart attack because what I thought of as a HEART ATTACK was actually sudden cardiac death – which was definitely not what I was experiencing. Thank you for this useful clarification. These are both traumatic diagnoses but survival chances for SCA are far worse.

    Like

  3. SanDiego RN May 18, 2012 at 6:40 am #

    Excellent explanation of the difference between these two deadly diagnoses. Especially important for women, who may still believe that the HOLLYWOOD HEART ATTACK (usually cardiac arrest symptoms) is the only way to have a heart attack, thus promoting denial and dismissal of more vague women’s symptoms. A great service to your readers here. Thank you, Carolyn!

    Like

    • Carolyn Thomas May 18, 2012 at 7:20 am #

      Good points, SD RN – thanks for taking the time to share your perspective.

      Like

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