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Heart Attack Vs Cardiac Arrest: The Difference Between The Two And How To Respond During A Heart Emergency

[Photo: Shutterstock.com]

Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United State among men and women.

We know that every minute counts during a heart emergency, which is why medical experts say being equipped with the right knowledge to respond can be the difference between a trip to the hospital - and a trip to the morgue.

A recent Cleveland Clinic survey examined how prepared Americans are for a heart health emergency, like a heart attack or cardiac arrest, and the results may surprise you.

Confusion Among Symptoms:

The survey found many Americans struggle with identifying heart emergencies and their symptoms, including the differences between a stroke and heart attack – both requiring prompt action, but in different ways. Fifty-nine percent falsely identified sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg as a symptom of a heart attack.

“The typical symptoms of a heart attack are pain in the center in the chest,” said Dr. Steve Nissen, chairman of Cardiovascular Medicine at Cleveland Clinic. “It can radiate to typically the left arm, but may go to both arms and up to the jaw. It’s often associated with sweating, nausea, dizziness, and you may even pass out.”

A heart attack occurs when a cholesterol laden plaque ruptures in an artery around the heart, forming a blood clot. The clot shuts down the flow of blood to the heart muscle, which in turn causes a heart attack.

On the other hand, a stroke is a neurological event. People typically experience weakness, numbness, and the inability to speak.

The survey also indicated confusion with another heart emergency, with 87 percent of people falsely believing cardiac arrest to be just another term for a heart attack.


“A heart attack is this blockage, this acute blood clot in an artery, but a cardiac arrest is when there’s an electrical disturbance in the heart that causes the heart to beat wildly or stop beating entirely,” said Dr. Nissen.

Preparing For A Heart Emergency:

While most Americans know to dial 911, only 36 percent of people know to chew an aspirin during a heart attack. Aspirin makes platelets less sticky, which helps to reduce clotting and can actually dissolve a clot in a small percentage of patients.

In the event of cardiac arrest, knowing how to perform CPR and having quick access to an automated external defibrillator can be the difference between life and death. Just 27 percent of Americans say there is an AED in their workplaces.  

“A lot of people will have a defibrillator, walk by it at work and just not register that there’s one there,” said Dr. Nissen.

While more than half of Americans say they know how to perform CPR, most don’t know the recommended technique for adults – which uses chest compressions only, and just 11 percent know the correct pace.

“The reason we do surveys like this is we want the public to know what to do in a situation like that. Given how prevalent heart disease is, an awful lot of people have someone in the family that has heart disease or is high risk,” said Dr. Nissen. “Now is the time to plan, not after it happens.”

Additional Resources:

Register For Free CPR Training

Heart Attack Risk Factors

stephanie.jarvis@ideastream.org | 216-916-6340