Cardiac Arrest

Written by Brindles Lee Macon and Elizabeth Boskey, PhD | Published on July 25, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD


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 is 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. If you or someone you are with is experiencing the symptoms of cardiac arrest, seek emergency health assistance immediately. It can be fatal. Immediate response and treatment can save a life.

What Causes Cardiac Arrest?

A number of factors can cause sudden cardiac death. Two of the most common are ventricular and atrial fibrillation.

Ventricular 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 do not pump blood to the body. This may lead to sudden cardiac death.

The most frequent cause of cardiac arrest is ventricular fibrillation.

Atrial Fibrillation

The heart can also stop after an arrhythmia in the upper chambers. These chambers are known as the atria.

Atrial fibrillation begins when the sinoatrial (SA) node does not send out the correct electrical impulses. The SA node is located in the right atrium. It regulates how quickly the heart pumps blood.

Who is at Risk for Cardiac Arrest?

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. When they become blocked, the heart does not receive blood. It may stop working properly.

Large Heart

Having an abnormally large heart places you at risk. 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 can cause problems in the rest of the heart. 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 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:

  • smoking
  • sedentary lifestyle
  • high blood pressure
  • obesity
  • family history of heart disease
  • history of a previous heart attack
  • age over 45 (men) or 55 (women)
  • male gender
  • substance use
  • low potassium or magnesium

Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of Cardiac Arrest

Cardiac arrest may not always have symptoms. If you have symptoms that persist, seek prompt medical care. 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
  • vomit
  • experience heart palpitations

Someone should call for immediate emergency care if you:

  • do not have a pulse
  • stop breathing
  • have pain in the chest
  • lose consciousness
  • collapse

Diagnosing Cardiac Arrest

Diagnosing cardiac arrest involves looking for changes in your heart’s rhythm. The primary test for this is an electrocardiogram. Other tests can also be used.

Blood tests can be used to look for signs of a heart attack. They can also measure potassium and magnesium levels.

Echocardiogram can be used to check for damage in the heart muscle.

Chest X-ray can look for other signs of disease in the heart.

Long-Term Outlook of Cardiac Arrest

Cardiac arrest can be fatal. However, prompt treatment increases your odds of survival. Treatment is most effective within a few minutes of the arrest.

Treating Cardiac Arrest

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is one form of emergency treatment for cardiac arrest. Defibrillation is another. These treatments are used to 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 be used to lower high blood pressure and cholesterol.

Surgery can be used to repair damaged blood vessels or repair damaged heart valves. It can also be used to bypass or remove blockages in the arteries.

Exercise may be recommended to improve cardiovascular fitness.

Dietary changes can help you lower cholesterol.

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