Which Is Worse, Heart Attack or Cardiac Arrest?

Reviewed on 4/27/2022
An elderly man clutching his chest while a woman helps him
Cardiac arrest is considered to be far worse than a heart attack because it is often fatal, while most people survive a heart attack. 

A heart attack (also called myocardial infarction or MI), happens when blood flow from the coronary arteries to the heart is reduced or blocked completely. When this occurs, the heart muscle is deprived of oxygen and nutrients, causing damage to the heart. 

  • A cardiac arrest is when the heart suddenly stops beating, resulting in blood no longer circulating throughout the body. 
  • Cardiac arrest is far worse because it is often fatal, while most people survive a heart attack. 

Each year in the United States, about 805,000 people are hospitalized with a heart attack, and most of them – 90 to 97 percent – survive. On the other hand, a person suffering cardiac arrest will stop breathing and lose consciousness very quickly. If not treated within minutes, cardiac arrest can be fatal and most people who have a cardiac arrest will die from it. 

Both heart attack and cardiac arrest are medical emergencies. If you think you are having a heart attack, call 911 immediately. Do not drive yourself to the hospital. If you see someone you suspect may be in cardiac arrest, you can increase the person’s chances of survival by calling 911 immediately, doing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), and using an automated external defibrillator (AED) if available. 

What Are Symptoms of Heart Attack and Cardiac Arrest?

Symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • Chest pain (angina
  • Shortness of breath (may occur with or without chest pain)
  • Pain, tingling, or discomfort in other areas of the body including one or both arms, back, neck, jaw, and/or stomach
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Nausea 
  • Vomiting 
  • Cold sweats/clammy skin
  • Racing or irregular heartbeat
  • Belching
  • Heartburn

Cardiac arrest often does not have any warning signs. When warning signs of cardiac arrest occur, they may include:

  • Fainting (often the first sign)
  • Chest pain
  • Palpitations
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Shortness of breath

A person who is in cardiac arrest will be:

  • Unconscious
  • Unresponsive
  • Not breathing

How Are Heart Attacks and Cardiac Arrest Diagnosed?

If a heart attack is suspected, it is diagnosed with a patient history and physical exam along with diagnostic tests such as:

Cardiac arrest usually occurs suddenly and is rarely diagnosed with tests as it's happening, but is diagnosed after it occurs. 

Tests to help detect risk factors for cardiac arrest may include: 

  • Electrocardiogram (EKG)
  • Echocardiography (“echo”)
  • Cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Cardiac catheterization (“cardiac cath”)
  • Electrophysiology study
  • Blood tests to check levels of potassium, magnesium, and other chemicals in the blood that play a role in the heart's electrical signaling

What Is the Treatment for Heart Attack and Cardiac Arrest?

A heart attack is treated in a hospital’s emergency department and treatment may include:

Other Treatments

  • A coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) is a surgical treatment for a heart attack in which a blocked coronary artery is bypassed using a healthy blood vessel from another part of the body. 
  • Cardiac arrest is a medical emergency which is usually fatal if not treated immediately with a combination of cardio pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and defibrillation. 
  • CPR stands for CardioPulmonary Resuscitation, an emergency procedure that is a combination of chest compressions and artificial ventilation (breathing) used to save a person’s life when a person’s heart stops beating or breathing ceases. When performed right away, CPR can increase a person’s chances of survival after cardiac arrest.
  • A machine called a defibrillator delivers an electric shock through the chest wall to correct the arrhythmia.
  • Immediate treatment with an automated external defibrillator (AED) can be life-saving. An AED is a portable device, often available in public locations for use by bystanders, that sends an electric shock to the heart, stopping an irregular heart rhythm (such as ventricular fibrillation), and allowing a normal rhythm to resume. Even without formal training, most people can effectively follow instructions on an AED while waiting for EMS to arrive. 
  • If a cardiac arrest occurs in the hospital, a clinical team (sometimes called a “crash team” or “code team”) will be called to carry out CPR and defibrillation.
  • A person may be given medication to help reduce the risk of another cardiac arrest.

Once the cause of the cardiac arrest is determined, there may be additional treatment. 

  • Coronary heart disease may require percutaneous coronary intervention, also known as coronary angioplasty, or coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG) to help restore blood flow through narrowed or blocked coronary arteries
  • Placement of an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD), which uses electric pulses or shocks to help control dangerous arrhythmias
Reviewed on 4/27/2022
Image Source: iStock Images