Key Points on Cardiac Arrest

  • Sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) is acondition in which the heart suddenly and unexpectedly stops beating.When this happens, blood stops flowing to the brain and other vitalorgans.
  • SCA usually causes death if it’s not treated within minutes.
  • SCA usually occurs when the heart develops an arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) that causes the heart to stop pumping blood to the body.
  • SCA is not the same as a heart attack.During a heart attack, the heart usually doesn’t stop beating. SCA,however, can happen after or during recovery from a heart attack.
  • Mostcases of SCA are due to an arrhythmia called ventricular fibrillation.Other electrical problems in the heart also can cause SCA. Severalfactors can cause the electrical problems that lead to SCA. Thesefactors include coronary artery disease (CAD), severe physical stress, inherited disorders, and structuralchanges in the heart.
  • SCA occurs most often in people in theirmid-thirties to mid-forties. It affects men twice as often as women.The major risk factor for SCA is undiagnosed Coronary Artery Disease (CAD).
  • Usually, thefirst sign of SCA is loss of consciousness (fainting). At the sametime, no heartbeat (or pulse) can be felt. Some people may have aracing heartbeat, dizziness, lightheadedness, chest pain, shortness ofbreath, nausea (feeling sick to the stomach), or vomiting before SCA.
  • SCAoften happens without warning. It requires immediate emergencytreatment. Doctors rarely have a chance to diagnose SCA with medicaltests as its happening. Instead, SCA usually is diagnosed after ithappens. Doctors do this by ruling out other causes of a person’ssudden collapse.
  • SCA requires immediate treatment with adefibrillator. This device sends an electric shock to the heart. Theshock may restore a normal rhythm to a heart that’s stopped beating. Towork well, defibrillation must be done within minutes of SCA.
  • Automatedexternal defibrillators (AEDs) are special defibrillators thatuntrained bystanders can use. These devices are becoming more availablein public places like airports, office buildings, and shopping centers.
  • Ifyou survive SCA, you usually will be admitted to a hospital forobservation and treatment. Your medical team will try to find out whatcaused your SCA. If you’re diagnosed with CAD, you may have angioplasty or coronary artery bypass grafting. These procedures help restore blood flow through narrowed or blocked coronary arteries.
  • Often, people who have SCA get a device called an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) to prevent a repeat SCA. This small device is surgically placedunder the skin in your chest or abdomen. An ICD uses electric pulses orshocks to help control dangerous arrhythmias.
  • Talk to yourdoctor about ways to prevent death due to SCA. Medical devices,medicines, and lifestyle changes can lower your risk for SCA. Whatsteps you should take depend on if you’ve already had SCA, if you’venever had SCA but are at high risk for the condition, or if you’venever had SCA and have no known risk factors for the condition.
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Mark Boguski, M.D., Ph.D. is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and is a member of the Society for Participatory Medicine, "a movement in which networked patients shift from being mere passengers to responsible drivers of their health" and in which professional health care providers encourage "empowered patients" and value them as full partners in managing their health and wellness.

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