Sudden cardiac arrest is the abrupt onset of a dangerous heart rhythm or loss of a heartbeat altogether – a condition requiring immediate medical attention. More than 360,000 cardiac arrests occur outside a hospital in the U.S. each year, says the American Heart Association (AHA).
Cardiac arrest can affect anyone, even if he or she does not have pre-existing heart disease. It can happen suddenly or be preceded by other symptoms. By knowing how to recognize cardiac arrest, how to respond to it and how to treat it, you can have the power to save someone’s life. (October is Sudden Cardiac Arrest Awareness Month.)
The key to treating cardiac arrest is to first recognize it. The symptoms can be an unexplained collapse, unconsciousness, lack of breathing or a pulse, or even seizure-like movements. If you see this happening to any person, first determine if they are responsive by shaking them and yelling at them to see if they respond. Check for a pulse in the wrist or neck, and look for breathing. Immediately call 911, and start cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), if possible, and ask someone to bring an automated external defibrillator (AED) if there is one available at the location, explains Eli Friedman, M.D. , medical director of sports cardiology at Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute . AEDs are devices that can monitor a person who is in cardiac arrest and deliver a shock to the heart to help regain a normal heart rhythm, if needed.
“If you witness a cardiac arrest and respond quickly, you can potentially save someone’s life,” says Dr. Friedman. “There is no doubt that prompt recognition of cardiac arrest, with quick responsiveness and with CPRs and AEDs, save lives.”
Causes of Cardiac Arrest
There are many causes of cardiac arrest. The most common cause in those over the age of 35 years of age is coronary artery disease. In severe cases, blood flow to the heart muscle is severely limited to stopped altogether leading to dangerous heart rhythms (ventricular fibrillation or ventricular tachycardia) causing cardiac arrest. This is otherwise known as a myocardial infarction (e.g. heart attack).
It is important to note that while heart attacks can cause cardiac arrest, not all forms of cardiac arrest are from heart attacks. Other causes arising from the heart can include a weak heart muscle (heart failure) or valvular heart disease (severe narrowing or leakage of a heart valve). In those under the age of 35 years, causes are more likely to include a condition someone was born with. These can include abnormalities with the electrical system of the heart, malformations of the heart’s arteries or issues with the heart muscle itself.
Still, other causes of cardiac arrest have nothing to do with the heart itself, but rather abnormalities in other organ systems. These can include blood clots that travel to the lungs (pulmonary embolus), severe metabolic abnormalities in the body and even issues with body temperature. These issues tend to arise in very sick, hospitalized patients.
“Diagnostic tests, such as electrocardiograms and echocardiograms can detect some of these conditions,” said Dr. Friedman. “The most important thing to do is get checked out if you have any cardiac symptoms (chest pain, difficulty breathing, skipping or racing heartbeat or fainting) or have a family history of early onset heart disease.”
How Can You Be ready?
Cardiac arrest can happen anywhere at any time. While you often see AEDs in airports, local gyms and grocery stores, you are far more likely to witness cardiac arrest in your home than any other location, said Dr. Friedman. The best way to be ready to deal with cardiac arrest is to know how to perform CPR and how to use an AED. CPR or an AED should utilized after calling 911 to get first responders to arrive at the scene as quickly as possible.
When performing CPR , place your hands in the middle of the person’s chest and push hard and fast. Push to a depth of about two inches, at about 100-120 compressions per minute (or to the beat of the song “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees, explains Dr. Friedman. If an AED is available, someone who is qualified in using it can open the case and apply the two pads as directed. The device will turn on and will instruct the user on when to do CPR, when to stop — and when and how to deliver a shock if needed.
“Just like anything in life, practice makes perfect,” said Dr. Friedman. “The more you practice CPR and using an AED, the more ready you will be to help save a life.”
Courses in Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS), offered by the Baptist Health Center for Advancement of Learning , is designed for healthcare providers who either direct or participate in resuscitation of patients from cardiac arrest.