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Distinguish Between Heart Attacks, Cardiac Arrest and Strokes

Heart attacks, cardiac arrest and strokes are all serious conditions related to the heart, but too often people use the terms interchangeably without understanding the differences among the three. Although the disorders are all (usually) related to the heart, they have different causes and symptoms, and it's important to know the characteristics of each so you can better identify and address the problems should they occur in your loved ones, or even yourself.
What is the Difference Among the Three Conditions?

Heart Attack

A heart-attack is a blood circulation problem caused when arteries become blocked and prevent oxygen-rich blood from reaching the chambers of the heart. An attack occurs when the coronary arteries responsible for carrying the blood to the heart become narrower due to the accumulation of fatty matter, calcium and proteins within them.

Over time, these deposits form plaque, which hardens on the outside. As they harden, the plaque deposits can rupture, causing blood clots to form around them. When these blood clots block the coronary arteries altogether, blood cannot reach the heart, which in turn becomes starved of oxygen. When this happens, the muscle cells of the heart begin to die and can become permanently damaged, which is what constitutes a heart attack.


Heart Attack


Cardiac Arrest

Cardiac arrest (often known as 'sudden cardiac arrest') occurs due to an 'electrical fault' that causes the heart to malfunction. When it's working properly, the heart creates electrical impulses that cause it to contract and relax, creating the 'beat' that pumps blood throughout the body.

When these impulses are interfered with or stop altogether, a sudden cardiac arrest can occur because the ventricles of the heart 'flutter' rather than 'pump'. If this reduces the blood flow to the brain significantly, a person can fall unconscious and collapse and will therefore be in need of immediate, emergency treatment.

Heart Attack



A stroke, also known as a cerebrovascular accident (CVA) is actually a brain disorder that is often (but not always) caused by a heart problem. It occurs when the blood flow to the brain is reduced to the point where cells in the brain begin to die. There are two main types of stroke: 

  • Ischemic - Caused by a blockage in an artery that results in a lack of blood flow to the brain, and the death of brain cells. This type of stroke is related to the heart and circulatory system, which is why it is often confused with a heart attack or cardiac arrest.
  • Hemorrhagic  - Caused by bleeding, usually triggered by a ruptured artery in the brain itself. They can sometimes be associated with traumatic injuries to the head, although a stroke can occur a long time after the original incident.




What Are the Symptoms of Each Condition?

Heart problemAlthough the conditions can all develop suddenly, there are often a number of indicators that people can use to identify a developing issue. Some of the symptoms can be shared between two of the conditions, but there are also some differences that can help you distinguish between them:

Symptoms of a Heart Attack

The symptoms that indicate a heart attack may well come and go, but can also worsen over time. They are also likely to be more acute during times of physical exertion.

  • Chest Pain - Also known as angina, sufferers often describe a feeling of 'weight' or tightness in the chest. It will often come and go, and can be easily confused with indigestion.
  • Pain and Numbness in Other Areas of the Body - Feelings of pain or discomfort in the arms, neck, jaw and back are frequent indicators of heart disease. The left side of the body is more likely to be affected than the right side.
  • Unexplained shortness of breath, wheezing and extreme weakness.
  • A rapid or irregular pulse or heart beat.
  • Dizziness, nausea and vomiting.
  • Increased and often unexplained feelings of anxiety.


Symptoms of a Cardiac Arrest

StethoscopeIn over half the cases, cardiac arrest occurs without symptoms as a 'sudden event'. However, some sufferers do experience a number of symptoms in the run up to a problem, which can be considered indicators of an imminent arrest. These include:

  • A racing heartbeat/extreme palpitations.
  • Feelings of dizziness and disorientation.
  • Loss of breath and chest pain.

Although these indicators can foretell the coming of a cardiac arrest, most people will be alerted to the event by extreme symptoms such as sudden collapse or loss of consciousness. It is much harder to predict, in most cases, than a heart attack or stroke, particularly far in advance.

Symptoms of a Stroke

BrainMost of the indicators of an upcoming stroke are neurological and can begin to become apparent in the weeks and months leading up to the attack. Symptoms to look out for include:


  • Severe headaches that can be accompanied by feelings of dizziness.
  • Confusion, forgetfulness and loss of memory. The inability to follow conversations or recall names, facts and past events easily.
  • Blurred vision in one or both eyes and slurred speech.
  • Coordination problems leading to issues walking or picking up objects.
  • Nausea, sickness and excessive sweating.
  • Partial or complete loss of feeling or function in the arms, legs and mouth. This will typically affect one side of your body, so if one arm keeps falling down when you raise both, or your mouth/face begins to droop on one side, you could be experiencing symptoms.

Common Confusion Between the Disorders

Much like the common cold is often called the 'flu' in everyday language, confusion among the three types of heart-related conditions occur too. Typically, representations of 'cardiac arrest' in film and TV programs will involve people responding by saying 'he/she is having a heart attack'. Most of the time, the condition which leads to sudden collapse and clutching of the chest will be cardiac arrest, although heart attacks do share many of the same symptoms.

It should also be noted that during a heart attack, the heart continues to beat, while in cardiac arrest, it stops beating altogether (or the power of the beats is significantly reduced) due to the electrical malfunction. Someone who has previously suffered a heart attack is at greater risk of sudden cardiac arrest.


A heart attack is also more likely to occur as a result of a gradual development and worsening of symptoms over time (although sometimes, people can have a heart attack despite displaying no symptoms at all - a condition known as a 'silent' myocardial infarcation).

The symptoms of a stroke, meanwhile, are distinct and most commonly effect the head or a sufferer's motor skills. Because the causes of a stroke can be attributed to the heart's failure to pump enough blood to the brain, one can actually occur as a result of sudden cardiac arrest (which is actually one of the chief causes of a stroke). 


What Should You Do?

Man beachThere is no need to live in fear of any of the disorders, but you should always seek medical attention if you have any concerns that you are displaying symptoms. Heart attacks and strokes in particular do often give notice of an upcoming event, and medical treatment could prevent the event becoming catastrophic. Learn CPR to put yourself in a position to help someone who suffers from sudden cardiac arrest and you may just save a life.

The best ways to ensure you don't develop problems are to live a healthy lifestyle, avoid bad habits, eat well and exercise regularly. Also, visit your Doctor for regular check ups, particularly if you are displaying any symptoms that could be related to these conditions.

Sources: webmd & top10homeremedies

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