What's the Difference Between Cardiac Arrest and a Heart Attack?

By: Patty Rasmussen  | 
Damar Hamlin cardiac arrest
Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals players are stunned as EMTs work on Damar Hamlin after he suffered a cardiac arrest during the first quarter of an NFL game Jan. 2, 2023, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

Chances are you've heard about — or even saw — the terrifying Monday Night Football incident Jan. 2, 2023, when Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest during the first quarter of the game.

Medical personnel intervened immediately, removing Hamlin's helmet, providing oxygen from a portable tank and performing CPR for about eight minutes before loading him onto a stretcher and into an ambulance. He was taken to a nearby hospital for treatment.

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Hours later, the Bills organization released a statement stating, "[Hamlin] suffered a cardiac arrest following a hit in the Buffalo Bills' game versus the Cincinnati Bengals. His heartbeat was restored on the field ... He is currently sedated and listed in critical condition."

The 24-year-old Hamlin is still listed in critical condition and it's not clear what caused the cardiac arrest.

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What Is Cardiac Arrest?

Cardiac arrest is a sudden stoppage of the heart's electrical system in a person who may or may not have heart disease or coronary artery disease (CAD). The heart stops beating properly.

In the case of Damar Hamlin, that reason appears to be sudden force; blunt impact to the chest during sports activities can lead to cardiac arrest. Usually, the person becomes completely unresponsive or might only be capable of gasping for breath.

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Death can occur within minutes if intervention isn't taken. Typical emergency intervention includes CPR or use of an Automated External Defibrillator (AED), which shocks the heart and restores its normal rhythm.

The American Heart Association (AHA) suggests if two people are available to assist someone in cardiac arrest, one person should begin CPR compressions while the other calls for emergency assistance and attempts to locate an AED.

heart attack cardiac arrest
The terms cardiac arrest and heart attack are often used interchangeably, and while both conditions are life-threatening, they are not the same thing. One way to remember the difference is a heart attack is a "circulation" problem and cardiac arrest is an "electrical" problem.
Capital Heart Centre

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What Is a Heart Attack?

A heart attack, on the other hand, is a condition that is typically caused by problems in the circulatory system that have built up over time, despite the seemingly sudden onset of the attack.

Most heart attacks are caused by CAD, which occurs when plaque builds up in the walls of arteries that take blood to the heart.

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As arteries narrow (a process called atherosclerosis), the heart must work harder to pump blood. Chest pain — or angina — is the most common symptom of CAD. It's the first clue that a person has had a heart attack. Other symptoms include weakness, lightheadedness, nausea or cold sweats, pain or discomfort in the arms or shoulder, and shortness of breath.

During a heart attack, blood flow to the heart is blocked or slowed considerably. If the blocked artery isn't reopened quickly, the portion of the heart fed by that artery is damaged, sometimes beyond repair.

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