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Understanding the Difference Between Cardiac Arrest, Heart Attack, and Stroke 

Female hands in the form of heart against the sky pass sun beams. Hands in shape of love heart

Cardiac arrest, heart attack, and stroke are three terms that are often used interchangeably despite the fact that they are distinct medical emergencies. Understanding the differences between these conditions and learning to recognize the signs is crucial since each one requires specific, time-sensitive treatment that could be the difference between life and death. 

Cardiac arrest is an extremely time-sensitive emergency that occurs when the heart suddenly stops beating because of an electrical malfunction. During a heart attack, blood flow to the heart is restricted due to a blockage. Conversely, a stroke is also a time-critical emergency that involves interrupted blood flow to the brain.

The American Heart Association reports that nearly 350,000 out of hospital cardiac arrests (OHCA) occur annually in the United States alone. Clear understanding of these conditions helps improve public awareness and response techniques, which has the potential to save more lives. 

What is a Heart Attack?

A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, happens when blood flow to the heart is blocked–often due to buildup of plaque in the coronary arteries. A heart attack is best described as a plumbing issue since there is blockage preventing blood from reaching the heart. This leads to damage or death of the heart muscle cells. To save the heart muscle from dying, timely medical intervention is necessary to either physically remove the blockage or dissolve it. 

Unlike cardiac arrest where the heart suddenly stops functioning, or a stroke which affects the brain, heart attack specifically involves the heart muscle. The longer the person having a heart attack goes without treatment, the greater the damage. 

Symptoms of a Heart Attack

Heart attack symptoms can present differently in men and women. Men often experience the “traditional” symptoms,

  • Chest pressure, pain or discomfort 
  • Upper body pain (i.e. in the arms, back, neck, and jaw) 
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Nausea 
  • Dizziness and or weakness

These symptoms can last for minutes at a time, or the discomfort can come and go. 

As with men, a woman’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. However, women often present other symptoms less associated with a heart attack, like shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, sweating, back pain, and fatigue. 

What to Do if Someone Suffers a Heart Attack

If you suspect a heart attack, call 911 immediately–it is important to seek medical treatment as soon as possible. Early intervention can greatly improve the chances of survival and reduce long-term complications associated with a heart attack. 

While waiting for EMS to arrive, have the person sit or lie down comfortably and loosen any tight clothing. If the person becomes unconscious and stops breathing, start delivering CPR, or chest compressions.

What is Cardiac Arrest?

Cardiac arrest, sometimes referred to as Sudden Cardiac Arrest, is a life threatening medical emergency where the heart unexpectedly stops beating. 

While a heart attack is likened to a plumbing issue, cardiac arrest is better understood as an electrical issue since it involves a sudden, unexpected electrical malfunction of the heart. The malfunction disrupts the heart’s rhythm, which causes it to stop pumping blood throughout the body effectively. 

Without immediate intervention with CPR and a shock from an AED, or automated external defibrillator, cardiac arrest will lead to death within minutes. 

Symptoms of a Cardiac Arrest

Symptoms of a cardiac arrest include sudden loss of consciousness, unresponsiveness, and no breathing. If the person is awake and out of bed, cardiac arrest often looks like a sudden collapse. In some cases there can be warning signs before the event, such as chest pain, shortness of breath, or dizziness, but cardiac arrest can also occur with no prior symptoms at all. 

What to Do if Someone Suffers a Cardiac Arrest

If you encounter someone who is unresponsive and not breathing, assume it is cardiac arrest and take action immediately. The three steps to respond to a cardiac arrest are:

  1. Call 911
  2. Begin Hands-Only CPR, and
  3. Use an AED. 

While high-quality CPR buys time, the only way to save a life from cardiac arrest is with a shock from an AED to restore the heart’s normal rhythm. 

What is a Stroke?

A stroke, sometimes called a brain attack, occurs when blood flow to the brain is disrupted, which can quickly lead to brain cell damage or death. There are two main types of strokes, ischemic and hemorrhagic. The most common type (just under 90%) is ischemic stroke, and this happens when there is a blockage in a blood vessel supplying the brain. 

A hemorrhagic stroke is much less common and occurs when an artery in the brain starts to break open. 

Symptoms of a Stroke

People having a stroke may experience numbness or weakness in the face, arm or legs, especially on one side of the body. Other signs include sudden confusion, trouble speaking (i.e. slurred speech) or understanding speech, sudden trouble walking, dizziness, and loss of balance. 

What to Do if Someone Suffers a Stroke

Like cardiac arrest and heart attack emergencies, if you observe or experience any of the stroke symptoms above, call 911 immediately. 

To help assist you in responding to a stroke, remember the acronym FAST

  • Face: Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face drop? 
  • Arms: Ask the person to raise their arms. Does one side drift downward? 
  • Speech: Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is their speech slurred or strange?
  • Time: Call 911 immediately if you observe any of these signs.


Understanding the differences between a heart attack, cardiac arrest, and stroke is crucial for recognizing the conditions and addressing them quickly. While all three are serious medical emergencies, they have distinct causes, symptoms and treatment approaches. Knowing how to identify symptoms and call 911 promptly can greatly improve outcomes and save lives. 


Which is more serious: heart attack or stroke?

Both heart attack and strokes are serious medical emergencies, but the severity depends on various factors including the extent of damage and promptness of treatment. Both conditions are leading causes of death in the United States. 

Does your body warn you before a heart attack?

Warning signs such as chest pain, shortness of breath, and discomfort in the upper body can signal a heart attack, but not everyone experiences these symptoms. 

Can anxiety cause heart attack or stroke?

While anxiety can contribute to heart problems indirectly by raising blood pressure and heightening the nervous system, it doesn’t directly cause heart attacks or strokes. Some research indicates that anxiety, along with other conditions, can increase the chances of heart attack and other cardiac issues. 

All information on the website is provided in good faith. However, Avive makes no representation or warranty of any kind, express or implied, regarding the accuracy, validity, or completeness of any information on the Site. Any medical/health information on the Site is for general informational and educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical/health advice.


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