Ventricular fibrillation (VF) is a condition in which your heart beats in an abnormal rhythm. Your heart should beat in a regular, steady pattern. VF causes your heart to beat quickly and out of rhythm.
This is an emergency condition that may be brought on by a heart attack.
When VF occurs, the two chambers in the lower portion of your heart aren’t able to pump hard enough to move blood through your body. These lower chambers are called ventricles. This makes your blood pressure drop quickly and keeps blood from traveling through your body. As a result, blood can’t get to your vital organs.
Fainting or losing consciousness are the most common symptoms of VF, earlier symptoms include:
- chest pain
- rapid, fluttering heartbeat
- shortness of breath
These early symptoms can occur one hour or less before fainting or loss of consciousness occurs.
When to Seek Immediate Help
If you’re experiencing VF symptoms, have someone nearby call 911. If you suspect someone around you is experiencing VF, call 911.
While the exact cause of VF is unknown, the problem typically stems from interruptions in the electrical impulses that control your heartbeat. A heart attack or loss of blood flow to your heart can set off VF.
VF often begins with ventricular tachycardia, which is a very rapid heartbeat that changes the electrical impulses in your heart. This most often occurs in people who have scar tissue from previous heart attacks or heart muscle damage due to heart conditions. If it’s left untreated, ventricular tachycardia will likely lead to VF.
Your doctor can use testing to determine if you’re at risk of a VF episode. Examples of tests that are used for diagnosis include:
- an X-ray to look at your heart
- an echocardiogram, which uses sound waves to create an image of your heart in action
- an electrophysiology study, in which electrodes are placed inside your heart to monitor its electrical functioning
- Holter monitoring, in which electrodes are attached to your chest and connected to a small machine called a Holter monitor that keeps track of your heart rhythms for a period determined by your doctor (usually 24 hours)
- a stress test, in which your heart is monitored while you exercise
T-wave alternans testing can also be done. In this type of test, slight changes in your electrocardiogram’s T wave are monitored during gentle exercise. A T wave is one of the heart waves depicted on the electrocardiogram, which is a graphic visual representation of your heart’s electrical activity. The T wave is known for its rapidly changing, unsteady behavior
This testing can be beneficial in predicting risk. However, during a VF event, your doctor must make a quick diagnosis. This includes listening to your heart for the presence of a heartbeat. Your doctor can also use a cardiac monitor to view your heart rate and rhythm.
If you’re experiencing VF, you’ll most likely pass out due to blood loss in your body. In addition to calling 911 for emergency assistance, CPR, or electric shock to your heart can be vital for your survival.
When someone trained in CPR delivers hard, fast compressions on your chest at a rate of 100 pushes per minute, it can help move blood through your body to vital organs. New guidelines suggest that chest compression is the most important maneuver and should be done immediately to maintain circulation. Establishing an airway and administering rescue breaths are secondary.
If an automated external defibrillator (AED) is available, emergency responders can use this device to deliver electrical impulses to your heart. These portable devices are often available in:
- shopping malls
- health clubs
- senior centers
Proper training in CPR can save a loved one’s life. Consider enrolling in a CPR training course. If you’re trained in CPR and someone near you experiences a VF episode, you can deliver 30 compressions for every two rescue breaths. Continue performing CPR until emergency help arrives.
If you’re not trained, the American Heart Association suggests performing hands-only CPR. This involves pushing hard and quickly in the center of the person’s chest, with no mouth-to-mouth breathing.
At the Hospital
When you arrive at the hospital, your doctor will monitor your heart rhythm and use imaging scans to determine if there are any blockages in your heart that have led to a heart attack. They may also use medication to minimize irregular heartbeats or to keep your heart pumping harder.
Your doctor may recommend an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) that monitors your heart rhythms and sends out shocks when necessary to increase or decrease your heart rhythm. This is different from an implanted pacemaker, which constantly fires to maintain a regular rhythm.
If any of your heart’s arteries is blocked, you may require cardiac catheterization with angioplasty, which involves the insertion of a thin tube into your heart to open the blocked artery. A cardiac stent, which is a mesh tube, may also be permanently placed in the artery to help it remain open.
More invasive surgery types, such as coronary bypass surgery, may also be required. Coronary bypass surgery involves the attachment of a healthy artery to your blocked one. This will allow blood to bypass the blocked artery and flow smoothly through the newly attached artery.
In the future, you may wish to purchase an AED to keep at your home. Bystanders in your home could use this lifesaving device to restore your heart rhythm in the event of a VF episode.
Getting a person to a hospital when VF occurs is vital. Death can occur within one hour of when the condition starts. Other complications can include a coma, a loss of nerve function, and changes in mental function
A healthy lifestyle is vital to keeping your heart healthy and preventing VF. This means:
- You should eat a healthy diet.
- You should stay active, such as by walking 30 minutes per day.
- If you smoke, start thinking about ways to help you quit. Smoking can affect your arteries’ flexibility and overall cell health. Taking steps to quit can make a dramatic difference in your heart health.
- Maintaining a healthy weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels can also help to prevent cardiac issues, such as VF.