6 Warning Signs You May Be at Risk for Cardiac Arrest

Updated: Feb. 10, 2021

Cardiac arrest is often thought of as coming on suddenly without warning, but research suggests that there are signs you are at risk for cardiac arrest. Make sure you know the risk factors and possible warning signs of cardiac arrest.

Electrocardiogram printout
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Cardiac arrest vs. heart attack

A cardiac arrest is not the same as a heart attack.

A heart attack is a “circulation” problem, and cardiac arrest is an “electrical” problem. A heart attack occurs when blood flow to a part of the heart is obstructed—by a blocked artery, for example. Cardiac arrest is a problem with the circuitry of the heart: The subtle, intricate rhythms of your heartbeat are thrown off and the heart ceases to pump efficiently—or at all—according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

In a cardiac arrest, the person gasps for breath or stops breathing, collapses, and will die within minutes if not treated. While a heart attack can sometimes trigger a cardiac arrest, most of the time, the heart continues to beat during a heart attack. Unlike a cardiac arrest, a person who is having heart attack symptoms usually remains awake and aware, and can often talk about their symptoms. (Here’s what happens when your heart stops beating.)

Until recently, experts thought that cardiac arrest always came on without warning, but some research suggests otherwise: More than half of people experience signs in the month prior to going into cardiac arrest but don’t realize that they’re signs—and therefore ignore them—according to a 2016 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

More than 350,000 people in the United States experience sudden cardiac arrest each year, according to the AHA, and nearly 90 percent of them die. The research suggests that some of these deaths could be prevented if people who experience warning signs of cardiac arrest—which are often similar to those of a heart attack—acknowledged them and sought help: Nearly a third (32 percent) of the people in the study who called 911 before they had a cardiac arrest survived, compared with 6 percent who didn’t call.

“Err on the side of caution,” says J. Brent Muhlestein, MD, co-director of cardiovascular research at the Intermountain Medicinal Center Heart Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah. “If you experience symptoms, get help before cardiac arrest happens.”

man with hands on heart; chest pain

Chest pain

This is one of the classic warning signs of a heart attack (although women often have different heart attack symptoms), and it can also be a sign of a higher risk of cardiac arrest—it feels like discomfort or tightness, like an elephant stepping on your chest.

The chest pain (also called angina) sets in when you don’t have enough oxygen circulating through your blood and reaching the heart muscle.

“The pain can radiate to your left arm, and it gets worse if you try to exercise,” says Dr. Muhlestein. It lasts more than a few minutes or eases up and returns hours later or even the next day, according to the AHA.

woman at laptop with shoulder pain
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Radiating pain

You may experience pain in less predictable areas of the body as well, says Dr. Muhlestein. These include the stomach, shoulder, back, neck, throat, teeth, and jaw. Women are more likely than men to experience these symptoms, according to the AHA.

man walking or running up steps

Shortness of breath

“If you typically can climb stairs just fine but now feel short of breath after only three or four steps, that’s a warning sign,” says Dr. Muhlestein. Research has shown that people who experience symptoms have a greater risk of dying from heart disease than patients without symptoms—and even higher than patients with chest pain. (Learn more about the different types of heart disease and what to watch for.)

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Excessive sweating

Sweating more than you usually do, especially if you’re not exerting yourself, can be a warning sign of cardiac arrest. It’s more difficult for the heart to pump blood through arteries that are clogged, and the body responds to the effort by perspiring, says Dr. Muhlestein. Midlife women may assume they’re having hot flashes during menopause, but it’s smart to get this checked if it happens to you. (Read about the 5 silent signs you might have clogged arteries.)

senior woman with headache
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Flu-like symptoms

Fatigue, nausea, vomiting, weakness, stomach pain, light-headedness, and dizziness are also signs of cardiac problems, especially among women. In one survey of 500 women who survived heart trouble, 71 percent experienced extreme fatigue in the month before and during the attack.

And although heart disease is the leading cause of death for women, many still view heart problems as a men’s disease and ignore the signs, especially if chest pain is not one of them. (Don’t miss these 9 ways heart disease is different for women.)

senior man looking out the window
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A sense of impending doom

People who are experiencing signs that suggest they are at risk for a cardiac arrest often go into denial, says Dr. Muhlestein. “The classic situation is that someone starts to have chest discomfort and insists ‘it’s nothing’ or ‘it’s gas.’ At the same time, he’s terrified that something bad is happening,” Dr. Muhlestein says. “If you experience this, get it checked out. Don’t wait for it to become the real thing.” Here are more conditions that trigger a feeling of impending doom.

hands clutching chest

When to worry

It can be difficult to tell the difference between a relatively minor problem (like heartburn) and a serious warning (chest pain). “Heartburn triggers pain in the esophagus that can feel exactly like a heart attack,” says Dr. Muhlestein. “The same pain nerve goes to the heart and the esophagus, and the brain can’t distinguish between the two.” If you experience chest pain or any other symptom, don’t take chances, he says; “go to the ER.” Find out exactly what to do if you think you’re having a heart attack.

taking blood pressure

Risk factors

Numerous risk factors make it even more crucial to get help if you sense a warning sign for cardiac arrest. One is age. “The older you are, the more likely you are to have a cardiac arrest,” says Dr. Muhlestein. Other dangers include being overweight, smoking, and having diabetes, high blood pressure, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels above 100, and a family history of heart disease.

There are additional diseases and lifestyle factors that may also raise your risk of cardiac arrest. According to the AHA, “Other heart conditions may also disrupt the heart’s rhythm and lead to sudden cardiac arrest. These include a thickened heart muscle (cardiomyopathy), heart failure, arrhythmias, particularly ventricular fibrillation, and long Q-T syndrome.” According to the Harvard Health Letter, in addition to a heart attack, other possible causes of cardiac arrest include “a clot in the lungs, a serious imbalance of potassium, magnesium, or other minerals in the blood, a drug overdose, or a blow to the chest.” Check out 8 ways to keep your heart valves healthy.

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The ibuprofen question

There is some scientific evidence, including a study in European Heart Journal: Cardiovascular Pharmacotherapy, that taking ibuprofen frequently and in high doses can also raise your risk of a cardiac arrest. “This can raise your risk, but not nearly as much as the other factors,” says Dr. Muhlestein. If you take ibuprofen more than twice a month, Dr. Muhlestein recommends speaking to your doctor about switching to acetaminophen: “It’s safer in general than ibuprofen in that regard.” (Learn more about the painkillers that could lead to a heart attack.)

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What about calcium?

A study in Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that people with lower levels of calcium in their blood were more likely to experience cardiac arrest than those with higher levels. In fact, those with the lowest levels on average had twice the risk of those with the highest amounts. Calcium levels are easily determined with a blood test. The study authors said that further study is needed to confirm the results and to determine whether people with low levels could benefit from eating more foods that contain calcium or by taking a calcium supplement.

Next, check out these 44 things cardiologists do to protect their own hearts.