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What’s the Difference Between Heart Attack and Cardiac Arrest

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After the horrific scene of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsing during a football game recently, talk has quickly turned to cardiac arrest. What exactly happened? And what’s the difference between cardiac arrest and a heart attack?

Heart disease is the top cause of death in the United States and represents 32% of all deaths globally according to the World Health Organization. However, not all heart issues are synonymous and symptoms vary based on the specific attack or disease.

Cardiac arrest is caused by electrical disturbances that cause the heart to suddenly cease beating properly. This can lead to a sudden loss of breathing and consciousness. It can be reversed if CPR is quickly undertaken and a defibrillator is used to shock the heart back to a normal rhythm. Cardiac arrest is not a heart attack, but a heart attack can cause cardiac arrest.

Speculation on Hamlin’s situation is that a “commotio cordis” occurred. This is a disruption of the heart rhythm after a severe blow to the heart area during a key moment in the heartbeat cycle. While extremely rare, it is more frequently seen in young men during sports.

Heart attacks occur when there is a circulation problem, most likely due to a blockage where the blood is no longer freely flowing to the heart. It does not stop the heart suddenly like a cardiac arrest, but slows down and damages the heart muscle. Rather than a quick attack like a “commotio cordis,” heart attacks frequently happen due to a buildup of plaque in the arteries. Plaque forms over time until it becomes a major blockage thus causing a heart attack due to clotting.

With any heart attack or stoppage, CPR is critical in the moments following an episode. CPR, or cardiopulmonary resuscitation, keeps the blood flow active until medical professionals can take over. For the general public, health professionals have updated CPR standards to only include chest compressions. 

First and foremost, call 9-1-1 or have someone else call when chest compressions are started. Make sure the individual is flat on their back and then place two hands overlapping on the center of their chest with shoulders directly over hands, and elbows locked. Press at least two inches down with a rate of 100 to 120 pumps per minute. (“Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees is a popular song to follow the beat per compression.) In severe cases, an AED (automated external defibrillator) can be used to send a shock to a person in cardiac arrest. Many public places are now equipped with AEDs that contain instructions to follow or by listening to the 9-1-1 dispatcher. An AED should be used alongside CPR, never instead of CPR.

Check your local hospitals or neighborhood institutions as many frequently hold free CPR training classes. Knowing the basics can help save a life.