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Heart Attack vs. Cardiac Arrest vs. Heart Failure

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. There are many forms of heart disease, and it can be difficult to keep all of the terms straight. Three heart problems often confused are heart attack, sudden cardiac arrest and congestive heart failure.

“All three of these heart problems are serious, but their causes are different and they require different treatments,” said Zubair Khan, M.D., FACC, a cardiologist at Lake Regional Heart and Vascular. “Because all three are common, it’s a good idea to know how to recognize each one and what to do if any of them is suspected.”

What is Heart Attack?

A heart attack happens when there’s a sudden blockage in the flow of blood to a section of the heart muscle. If blood flow isn’t restored quickly, the affected section of the heart begins to die.

The leading cause of heart attack is coronary heart disease, also called coronary artery disease

“In this disease, plaque builds up inside the coronary arteries,” Dr. Khan said. “A blood clot can form on the plaque’s surface, and if the clot grows too big, it can mostly or completely block blood flow.”

The most common symptoms of heart attack — in both men and women — are chest pain and discomfort; upper body discomfort; and shortness of breath. Other possible symptoms include breaking out in a cold sweat; feeling unusually tired for no reason, sometimes for days; nausea and vomiting; and light-headedness or sudden dizziness.

“If you think you or someone else may be having a heart attack, call 911,” Dr. Khan said. “Immediate treatment is needed to restore blood flow to save the heart muscle.”

What Is Sudden Cardiac Arrest?

Someone having a minor heart attack might be able to continue activities, even as the restricted blood flow damages the heart. In contrast, there’s no such thing as “minor” sudden cardiac arrest, which happens when the heart suddenly stops beating.

“With no heartbeat, blood stops flowing to the brain and other vital organs,” Dr. Khan said. “As a result, sudden cardiac arrest usually causes death within minutes, if it’s not treated.”

Sudden cardiac arrest has different causes. People who have heart disease are at higher risk, and sudden cardiac arrest can happen during a heart attack. But, it also can happen in people who seem to be healthy.

There’s usually not time to get to a hospital for treatment. That’s why it’s important for people in the general public to have access to and training with automated external defibrillators. These devices — often found in malls, churches, schools and other public spaces — send an electric shock to the heart to try to restore normal rhythm.

What is Congestive Heart Failure?

Congestive heart failure is a chronic condition and can last several years.

“People hear ‘heart failure’ and think the heart is no longer working or is about to stop working,” Dr. Khan said. “In reality, the heart is still pumping but not as well as it should be.”

In some cases, the heart can’t fill with enough blood. In other cases, the heart can’t pump blood to the rest of the body with enough force. Some people have both problems. In all cases, the body does not receive enough blood flow to meet its needs for blood and oxygen, resulting in fatigue, breathing problems and weight gain from fluid buildup.

The most common causes for heart failure are coronary artery disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Other causes include heart muscle disease, heart valve disease, irregular heartbeat, congenital heart defects and injuries to the heart muscle.

Treatment depends on the condition’s severity but usually include lifestyle changes — such as eating healthier and losing weight — medication and ongoing care.

“Patient and caregiver education is essential for successful management of heart failure,” Dr. Khan said. “As complications arise, early intervention can prevent setbacks and hospitalizations. To get that early intervention, people have to know the warning signs and what to do about them.”