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.
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 fibrillation.
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.
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 enlarged.
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 rhythm abnormalities.
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
Early symptoms of cardiac arrest are often warning signs. Getting treatment before your heart stops could save your life.
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.
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 cardiac event:
- Blood tests can be used to look for signs of a heart attack. They can also measure potassium and magnesium levels.
- Chest X-ray can look for other signs of disease in the heart.
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.
- Medication 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.
- Exercise may improve cardiovascular fitness.
- Dietary changes can help you lower cholesterol.
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.
Written by: Brindles Lee Macon and Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Published on Jul 25, 2012
Medically reviewed on Feb 29, 2016 by Debra Sullivan, PhD, MSN, RN, CNE, COI