Cardiac arrest is a serious heart condition. The word arrest means
to stop or bring to a halt. In cardiac arrest, the heart ceases to
beat. It’s also known as sudden cardiac death.
Your heartbeat is controlled by electrical impulses. When
these impulses change pattern, the heartbeat becomes irregular. This is also
known as an arrhythmia. Some arrhythmias are slow, others are rapid. Cardiac
arrest occurs when the rhythm of the heart stops.
Cardiac arrest is an extremely serious health issue. The Institute
of Medicine reports that every year, more than half a million people
experience cardiac arrest in the United States. The condition can cause death
or disability. If you or someone you’re with is experiencing symptoms of
cardiac arrest, seek emergency health assistance immediately. It can be fatal.
Immediate response and treatment can save a life.
What Causes Cardiac Arrest?
A number of factors can cause sudden cardiac arrest. Two of
the most common are ventricular and atrial fibrillation.
Your heart has four chambers. The two lower chambers are the
ventricles. In ventricular fibrillation, these chambers quiver out of control.
This causes the heart’s rhythm to change dramatically. The ventricles begin to pump
inefficiently, which severely decreases the amount of blood pumped through the
body. In some cases, the circulation of blood stops completely. This may lead
to sudden cardiac death.
The most frequent cause of cardiac arrest is ventricular
The heart can also stop beating efficiently after an
arrhythmia in the upper chambers. These chambers are known as the atria.
Atrial fibrillation begins when the sinoatrial (SA) node
doesn’t send out the correct electrical impulses. Your SA node is located in
the right atrium. It regulates how quickly the heart pumps blood. When the
electrical impulse goes into atrial fibrillation, the ventricles can’t pump
blood out to the body efficiently.
Who Is at Risk for Cardiac Arrest?
Certain heart conditions and health factors can increase
your risk of cardiac arrest.
Coronary Heart Disease
This type of heart disease begins in the coronary arteries.
These arteries supply the heart muscle itself. When they become blocked, your
heart does not receive blood. It may stop working properly.
Having an abnormally large heart places you at increased
risk for cardiac arrest. A large heart may not beat correctly. The muscle may
also be more prone to damage.
Irregular Heart Valves
Valve disease can make heart valves leaky or narrower. This
means blood circulating through the heart either overloads the chambers with
blood or does not fill them to capacity. The chambers may become weakened or
Congenital Heart Disease
Some people are born with heart damage. This is known as a
congenital heart problem. Sudden cardiac arrest may occur in children who were
born with a serious heart problem.
Electrical Impulse Problems
Problems with your heart’s electrical system can increase
your risk of sudden cardiac death. These problems are known as primary heart
Other risk factors for cardiac arrest include:
- sedentary lifestyle
- high blood pressure
- family history of heart disease
- history of a previous heart attack
- age over 45 for men, or over 55 for women
- male gender
- substance abuse
- low potassium or magnesium
Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of Cardiac Arrest
Early symptoms of cardiac arrest are often warning signs.
Getting treatment before your heart stops could save your
If you are in cardiac arrest, you may:
- become dizzy
- be short of breath
- feel fatigued or weak
- experience heart palpitations
Immediate emergency care is needed if you or someone you are
with experiences these symptoms:
- chest pain
- no pulse
- not breathing or difficulty breathing
- loss of consciousness
Cardiac arrest may not have symptoms before it occurs. If
you do have symptoms that persist, seek prompt medical care.
Diagnosing Cardiac Arrest
During a cardiac event that causes your heart to stop
beating efficiently, it’s vital to seek medical attention immediately. Medical
treatment will focus on getting blood flowing back to your body. Your doctor
will most likely perform a test called an electrocardiogram to identify the
type of abnormal rhythm your heart is experiencing. To treat the condition,
your doctor will likely use a defibrillator to shock your heart. An electric
shock can often return the heart to a normal rhythm.
Other tests can also be used after you have experienced a
tests can be used to look for signs of a heart attack. They can also
measure potassium and magnesium levels.
X-ray can look for other signs of disease in the heart.
Treating Cardiac Arrest
Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is one form of emergency
treatment for cardiac arrest. Defibrillation is another. These treatments get
your heart beating again once it has stopped.
If you survive a cardiac arrest, your doctor may start you
on one or more treatments to reduce the risk of another attack.
can lower high blood pressure and cholesterol.
- Surgery can
repair damaged blood vessels or heart valves. It can also bypass or remove
blockages in the arteries.
may improve cardiovascular fitness.
changes can help you lower cholesterol.
Long-Term Outlook of Cardiac Arrest
Cardiac arrest can be fatal. However, prompt treatment
increases your odds of survival. Treatment is most effective within a few
minutes of the arrest.
If you have experienced cardiac arrest, it’s important to
understand the cause. Your long-term outlook will depend on the reason you
experienced cardiac arrest. Your doctor can talk to you about treatment options
to help protect your heart and prevent cardiac arrest from happening again.