Heart attack or cardiac arrest?

There is confusion over these heart emergencies — and it’s important to know the difference
A man in a grey sweater crossing his hands over his heart.

Cardiac arrest, heart attack and heart failure. These terms may seem interchangeable, they’re not. Understanding the difference between the three is important for getting the right treatment, and potentially saving a life.

We asked Dr. Farhan Bhanji to explain the details. He’s a professor of pediatrics and vice dean of education at McGill University’s faculty of medicine and health sciences. He is also an attending physician and trauma team leader who works in pediatric critical care at the Montreal Children’s Hospital. He represents Heart & Stroke on international resuscitation committees.

Heart attack

A heart attack is when the flow of blood to part of the heart muscle gets blocked. Without oxygen, that section of the heart begins to die. Depending on how long blood is cut off, the results can be mild damage, or it could be massive — even fatal.

Dr. Bhanji says the earlier you identify a heart attack, the better a person’s chance for survival.

“If someone is having chest pains, is sweating, has pain radiating to the shoulder, the arm, the jaw, or looks uncomfortable, you need to get them to the hospital as soon as possible.”

Learn more about heart attack and what to do.

Cardiac arrest

A cardiac arrest is when the heart suddenly and unexpectedly stops beating and oxygen-carrying blood stops flowing to the brain and other vital organs. It can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any age, for a variety of reasons, including a heart attack. This is a medical emergency that requires immediate action: call 9-1-1, perform CPR and use an AED (automated external defibrillator) as soon as one is available until emergency help arrives.

“For all intents and purposes, that person is dead at that point, and if you don’t act they will not survive,” says Dr. Bhanji. “If you do act, you can double their chance of survival.”  

Only one in 10 Canadians who have an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest will survive to go home to their families. 

“Most of the cardiac arrests that happen are in a home setting or environment where if there’s anyone around, it’s going to be your loved one,” says Dr. Bhanji. 

Learn more about cardiac arrest and how to respond.

Heart failure

Heart failure is a condition where the heart is weakened or damaged and cannot pump enough blood and oxygen to the body. It can be caused by many things, but most commonly it develops as a result of damage from a heart attack or high blood pressure (hypertension).

Someone with heart failure may feel shortness of breath, tiredness, swelling in the feet and ankles and bloating. There is no cure for heart failure but early diagnosis, lifestyle changes and appropriate drug treatments can help you maintain a normal, active life.

Learn more about heart failure and how to manage it.

Learn CPR today

At its most basic, CPR is as simple as pushing hard and fast on the centre of the person’s chest (think to the beat of “Stayin’ Alive”).

Dr. Bhanji says it is everyone’s responsibility to learn CPR – and how to use an AED – so that we are prepared for any heart related emergency.

“It’s a really scary moment, but we need to be able to act on these things and the best way to be able to do this is to take a CPR course with Heart & Stroke, or practise while you watch a video.” 

Learn more