Ventricular fibrillation

Written by Rachel Nall | Published on July 20, 2012
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, FACP

Ventricular Fibrillation

Ventricular fibrillation (VF) is a condition in which your heart beats in an abnormal rhythm. While your heart typically beats 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.

What Are the Symptoms of Ventricular Fibrillation?

When VF occurs, the two ventricles (chambers) in the lower portion of your heart are not able to pump hard enough to move blood through your body. This makes your blood pressure drop quickly and keeps blood from traveling through your body. As a result, blood cannot get to your vital organs.

While fainting or losing consciousness is the most common symptom of VF, early symptoms include:

  • chest pain
  • dizziness
  • nausea
  • rapid, fluttering heartbeat
  • shortness of breath

These early symptoms can occur one hour or less before fainting or loss of consciousness occurs.

Seek emergency help immediately for symptoms of VF.

If you are experiencing VF symptoms, have someone nearby call 911. If you suspect someone around you is experiencing VF, call 911.

What Causes Ventricular Fibrillation?

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 the 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 left untreated, ventricular tachycardia will likely lead to VF.

What Are the Effects of Ventricular Fibrillation?

Getting a person to a hospital when VF occurs is vital. According to PubMed Health, a non-hospitalized person who has a VF attack has a survival rate of only two to twenty-five percent (PubMed Health).

Death can occur within one hour of the condition’s onset. Other complications include:

  • coma
  • nerve function loss
  • changes in mental function

How Is Ventricular Fibrillation Diagnosed?

Your doctor can use testing to determine if you are at risk for a VF episode. Examples include:

  • X-ray to look at your heart
  • echocardiogram, in which sound waves are used to create an image of the heart in action
  • electrophysiology study, in which electrodes are placed inside the heart to monitor the heart’s electrical functioning
  • Holter monitoring, in which electrodes are attached to your chest and connected to a small machine called a Holter monitor. This test monitors your heart rhythms for the doctor’s prescribed period of time (usually 24 hours).
  • stress test, in which your heart is monitored while you exercise
  • T-wave alternans testing, which monitors slight changes in the electrocardiogram t-wave during gentle exercise. A T-wave is one of the heart waves depicted on the electrocardiogram, which is a graphic visual 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, a medical provider 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.

How Is Ventricular Fibrillation Prevented?

A healthy lifestyle is vital to keeping your heart healthy and preventing VF. This means eating a healthy diet as well as staying active—for instance, walking 30 minutes per day.

If you smoke, consult your physician 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 numbers can also help to prevent cardiac issues such as VF.

How Is Ventricular Fibrillation Treated?

A person experiencing VF will most likely pass out due to blood loss in the body. In addition to calling 911 for emergency assistance, delivering cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or electric shock to the heart can be vital to survival.

Delivering hard, fast compressions on a person’s chest at a rate of 100 pushes per minute can help to move blood through the person’s 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 you are trained in CPR, you can deliver 30 compressions for every two rescue breaths. Continue performing CPR until emergency help arrives.

Proper training in CPR can save a loved one’s life. Consider enrolling in a CPR training course or watch the short informational videos on the American Heart Association’s Web site (AHA).

If an automated external defibrillator (AED) is available, use this device (which delivers electrical impulses to the heart) when needed. These portable devices are often available in shopping malls, airports, hospitals, health clubs, senior centers, and schools.

At the Hospital

When you arrive at the hospital, your physician 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. Your doctor may also use medication treatments to minimize irregular heartbeats or to keep the heart pumping harder.

Your doctor may recommend an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator or 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 machine because a pacemaker constantly fires to maintain a regular rhythm.

If any of your heart’s arteries are blocked, you may require cardiac catheterization (the insertion of a thin tube into the heart) to open the artery. A cardiac stent (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, also may be required. Coronary bypass surgery involves the attachment of a healthy artery to the blocked one. This will allow blood to bypass the blocked artery and instead 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 life-saving device to restore your heart rhythm in the event of a VF episode.

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