Sudden Cardiac Arrest vs Heart Attack

It’s a common misconception that sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) and heart attack are the same thing. In reality they are quite different and understanding the difference could save your life or the life of someone you love. A heart attack could be described as a ‘plumbing problem’, while sudden cardiac arrest is more of an ‘electrical problem’.

Heart Attack

A heart attack occurs when a blocked artery prevents oxygen-rich blood from reaching a section of the heart. If that blocked artery is not cleared quickly, the part of the heart it normally nourishes begins to die. The longer the person affected goes without treatment, the greater the damage.

During a heart attack the person is awake and the heart is beating. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the centre of the chest that last more than a few minutes or goes away and come back.

Sudden Cardiac Arrest

The brain normally sends electrical signals to the heart in order for it to pump blood through the body and keep our organs running. Sudden cardiac arrest occurs when there is a disruption to that electrical current causing an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia).

With this disruption, the heart cannot pump blood to the rest of the body or its vital organs. The victim will lose consciousness and needs immediate help. If nothing is done they will die within minutes.

Lifesaving Actions

The only way to shock a heart back into a normal rhythm after SCA is with an automatic external defibrillator (AED). Minutes matter with SCA, if the person is not treated within the first 3 minutes of collapse their chance of survival decreases by 21%, with a 10% decrease for each extra minute until it is too late. The good news is when a person is defibrillated within the first minute of collapse, they have a 90% survival rate.

When SCA occurs begin the chain of survival. Call 000, begin CPR, locate an AED and defibrillate, wait until an ambulance arrives. It is lifesaving care that any layperson can provide, even without formal training.

What not to do

The worst thing for an SCA victim is to do nothing. Sometimes people hesitate to help because they are afraid they might do the wrong thing and hurt the victim. But your actions can only help. Any attempt at resuscitation is better than none.

Your hands can save a life.


No-one wants to be faced with the unthinkable, a loved one or colleague, even a stranger dropping to the ground and ceasing to breathe. Would you be prepared if it happened to you? Could you, as a bystander, act quickly to administer CPR and help save a life?

What is bystander CPR?

Bystander CPR, is exactly how it sounds, CPR performed by someone who has witnessed a medical emergency such as a sudden cardiac arrest.  CPR (Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation) is a basic first aid technique used to help save the life of someone who’s heart has stopped or has stopped breathing. CPR is performed by opening a person’s airway and performing chest compressions to push oxygen into the lungs, so that oxygenated blood can get to the brain and keep the person alive. Compression only is a newer way to perform CPR. It’s easier than the traditional method, and it save lives.

Why is bystander CPR important?

The Australian Resuscitation Council answer to this is clear: Any attempt at resuscitation is better than none. Over 33,000 out of hospital cardiac arrests occur in Australia each year. Less than 12% survive. Chest compression from an onlooker can keep a person experiencing cardiac arrest alive until the paramedics arrive. It more than doubles the survival rate. Combine it with early use of an AED (automated external defibrillator) and the statistics improve even further.

Can I get in trouble?

The short answer is no, most states in Australia have some form of the Good Samaritan Law  in place that protects any first responder, whether they are a medical professional or not from repercussions when attempting to help save someone’s life. There is no good reason not to learn how to do CPR. You don’t need to be a health professional to gain expertise in this highly effective medical intervention, which is quick to both learn and execute.