If your heart stops beating does that mean you’re having a heart attack? No. Cardiologists explain what really happens when your heart stops.
The heart is a powerful organ
Your heart is constantly working throughout your lifetime—never pausing to rest. A heart pumps some 2.5 billion times in an average human lifespan, or about 100,000 times a day and 35 million times a year. Of course, at the end of life, everyone’s heart stops beating.
However, sometimes—due to injury, damage, or disease—the heart stops pumping blood normally and needs a restart to get it back on track. So what happens if or when your heart stops beating? Here’s how cardiologists explain the causes and risks.
When your heart stops beating, it’s called cardiac arrest
When the heart abruptly stops pumping blood, it’s called sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). As the name implies, it can occur suddenly without warning.
There are many causes of SCA, including irregular heart rhythms and/or abnormalities present at birth, as well as an enlarged heart, heart valve problems, and heart disease. In addition, near drownings, electric shock, drug use, hypothermia, and other accidents and injuries can cause the heart to stop beating.
A cardiac arrest often results in sudden death, but there is a chance of survival if bystanders take quick action. About 12% of people who have a cardiac arrest outside a hospital survive, as do 25% of those who have one at a hospital.
A cardiac arrest is not the same as a heart attack
There is a difference between a heart attack and cardiac arrest: A heart attack may precede a cardiac arrest, but they are not the same. According to the American Heart Association, a heart attack is a circulation problem—a blockage in the blood flow to the heart—but the heart can continue to pump.
A person having a heart attack may feel chest pain and other heart attack symptoms (like nausea, sweating, fatigue, and more), which are caused by the reduction of blood flow to the heart. When a blockage in an artery reduces blood flow, areas of heart tissue start to die (so rapid treatment is necessary), but the heart can continue to pump blood.
During a heart attack, a person may remain conscious and be able to talk about the symptoms they are experiencing—but that’s not possible with a cardiac arrest.