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Heart Smart Living
Heart Smart Living

Cardiologist, author, and heart health expert Dr. Sarah Samaan offers advice on how to live a heart smart life.

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What You Need to Know about Sudden Cardiac Arrest

Jeff (not his real name) was an outwardly healthy and fit 35 year old who often enjoyed a quick pickup game of basketball after a hard day at the office. One recent evening at his local gym, Jeff’s teammates were stunned to see him collapse to the floor mid court. At first they thought it was another one of Jeff’s goofy jokes, but it quickly became clear that their friend was in serious trouble. Thanks to an automated external defibrillator hanging on the gym wall, and to his buddies’ quick thinking, Jeff’s heart was rapidly shocked back to life. By the time the paramedics arrived minutes later, he was using his considerable charm to try to talk them out of taking him to the hospital.

Jeff was fortunate. Sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) claims over 250,000 American lives each year, more than breast cancer, lung cancer, or AIDS, yet a recent survey reported by the Heart Rhythm Society found that many people underestimate its importance.

SCA is usually caused by a dangerous rhythm disturbance known as ventricular fibrillation. Unlike atrial fibrillation, a troublesome but not usually fatal rhythm, the electrical pattern with ventricular fibrillation is so erratic that heart essentially stops beating, stopping the flow of blood to the brain and other vital organs. Bystander CPR will help to buy a little time, but unless the heart rhythm is restored by shocking, or defibrillating, the heart within minutes, SCA will be fatal. 

Although a heart attack (typically caused by a blocked heart artery) may lead to SCA, the condition may also develop as a result of a weakened heart muscle or it may be due to an inherited condition. Often when we hear of young and seemingly healthy athletes dying suddenly during vigorous activity, SCA is the culprit.

If you’re experiencing occasional skipped beats, or palpitations, it’s unlikely that you’re at high risk for SCA. Nevertheless, it makes sense to visit your doctor and get the symptoms checked out. If you have unexplained fainting spells or bouts of feeling close to passing out, it’s critical that you make an appointment with your primary care physician or cardiologist for a thorough evaluation. In some cases, your doctor may consult an electrophysiologist. These highly specialized cardiologists focus on the diagnosis and treatment of complex heart rhythm disorders.

To learn more about SCA and other heart rhythm abnormalities, visit The Heart Rhythm Society’s patient information page. You can take a quick assessment to find out if you are at risk for SCA, learn how to minimize your chances of developing SCA, and read about a variety of treatments used to treat SCA and other heart rhythm abnormalities.

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Tags: Heart Attack , Heart Rhythm , Men and Heart Health , Women and Heart Health

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About the Author


Dr. Samaan is an acclaimed cardiologist, writer, and heart health educator.