What’s the Difference Between a Heart Attack, Cardiac Arrest and Heart Failure?

While heart attack, cardiac arrest and heart failure can sometimes be related, they’re actually three very different types of cardiac emergencies.

Cardiac arrest, heart attack and heart failure — three terms that are familiar to most people, but often get confused with one another. While there can be some overlap between them in terms of cause and effect, they are actually three distinct heart-related issues, each with its own set of causes and treatments.

Heart Attack

A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart is blocked, typically because of a blood clot or plaque that built up in the arteries over time.

Your heart muscle needs oxygen in order to function properly, so when blood flow is blocked, the heart muscle begins to die because of lack of oxygen. This is why time is such a critical factor for people who suffer heart attacks — they must be rushed into surgery so that blood flow can be restored before irreversible damage occurs.

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Cardiac Arrest

The term “cardiac arrest” means that the heart has stopped beating and needs to be restarted. Unlike a heart attack, which is a circulation issue, cardiac arrest is an electrical problem, typically triggered by a series of medical issues or trauma that disrupts the heart’s normal rhythm.

Importantly, the majority of heart attacks do not lead to full cardiac arrest; however, when cardiac arrest does occur, heart attacks are a common cause.

Because the heart stops beating during a cardiac arrest, blood and oxygen flow is cut off to the vital organs, including the brain and lungs. As a result, cardiac arrest can be fatal if it’s not resolved within minutes.

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Heart Failure

Heart failure occurs when the heart muscle is unable to pump enough blood to support the body’s needs. Patients often develop this condition after their heart has been weakened or damaged by another cardiovascular condition, such as a heart attack, congenital heart defects, coronary artery disease, hypertension or cardiomyopathy.

While heart failure is often a long-term, chronic condition, for some patients the onset can be quite sudden. Heart failure can also lead to arrhythmias, which can trigger cardiac arrest.

Because heart failure is both progressive and unpredictable, it’s important that patients seek medical treatment as soon as symptoms occur.

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