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In cardiac arrest, the heart suddenly stops beating. This causes blood to stop pumping to the body. If the heartbeat is not restarted within minutes, the person will die. This problem is also called sudden cardiac arrest.
Cardiac arrest is different from a heart attack, which happens when part of the heart muscle dies because blood flow to it has been blocked.
Cardiac arrest is usually caused by a problem with the heart's electrical system. In most cases, the heart's rhythm is too fast and irregular. This problem is called ventricular fibrillation (say "ven-TRICK-yuh-ler fib-ruh-LAY-shun"). The lower chambers of the heart (ventricles) quiver very fast and can't pump blood.
But cardiac arrest often happens to people who didn't know they had a heart problem.
Cardiac arrest can run in families. People who have a family history of sudden cardiac death have a higher risk for sudden cardiac death.footnote 1
Some other health problems can increase the chance of a deadly heart rhythm. They include:
Health professionals, family or friends, and even strangers may be able to help a person right away who has cardiac arrest. They can use CPR or a device called an automated external defibrillator (AED). This device can shock the heart back to a normal rhythm. AEDs are often available in airports, malls, and other public places. To save a person, the device needs to be used within minutes of cardiac arrest.
In the ambulance and hospital, the person will receive emergency care. This care keeps the heart and lungs working to prevent damage to the body due to lack of oxygen. Doctors will try to find the cause of the cardiac arrest to prevent another one.
If you have a health problem that raises your risk of cardiac arrest, treatment of that problem may help lower your risk. Medicine often can control the heart rhythm.
Your doctor may recommend a device that can detect a life-threatening abnormal heartbeat and help restore a normal rhythm. This device is typically implanted and called an ICD, or implantable cardioverter-defibrillator. Or it may be worn as a vest.
Some people have catheter ablation. This procedure can fix a bad heart rhythm without surgery. A doctor puts tubes and wires into a blood vessel to destroy a very small part of the heart that causes bad rhythms.
A healthy lifestyle can help keep your heart strong and healthy. Try to:
If you take medicine for a heart problem, take it exactly as prescribed. Go to your doctor appointments, and call your doctor if you're having problems.
CitationsAl-Khatib SM, et al. (2016). 2016 AHA/ACC Clinical performance and quality measures for prevention of sudden cardiac death: A report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association task force on performance measures. Circulation Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, 10:e000022. DOI: 10.1161/HCQ.0000000000000022.
Current as of: April 29, 2021
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: Rakesh K. Pai MD, FACC - Cardiology, ElectrophysiologyE. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal MedicineMartin J. Gabica MD - Family MedicineAdam Husney MD - Family MedicineJohn M. Miller MD, FACC - Cardiology, Electrophysiology
Current as of: April 29, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:Rakesh K. Pai MD, FACC - Cardiology, Electrophysiology & E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine & Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine & Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & John M. Miller MD, FACC - Cardiology, Electrophysiology
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