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Cardiac Arrest

Condition Basics

What is cardiac arrest?

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.

What causes it?

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.

Cardiac arrest can run in families. People who have a family history of sudden cardiac death may have a higher risk for sudden cardiac death.

Some heart problems can increase the chance of a deadly heart rhythm. They include:

Other health problems can also cause cardiac arrest. They include:

  • A blood clot in a lung (pulmonary embolism).
  • Drowning.
  • Injury.
  • Poisoning.

How is it treated?

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 public places. To save a person, the device needs to be used as soon as possible.

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 help prevent another one. The person may also get other treatments and rehabilitation to help them recover.

How can you prevent cardiac arrest?

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:

  • Quit smoking or cut back as much as you can. Talk to your doctor if you need help quitting. Quitting smoking can lower your risk for cardiac arrest.
  • Eat heart-healthy food. These foods include vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, lean meat, fish, and whole grains. Limit alcohol, sodium, and sugar.
  • Exercise for at least 30 minutes on most, if not all, days of the week.
  • Stay at a weight that's healthy for you. Talk to your doctor if you need help losing weight.
  • Manage other health problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. If you think you may have a problem with alcohol or drug use, talk to your doctor.

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.

Credits

Current as of: September 7, 2022

Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board:
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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