Sudden Cardiac Arrest

True to its name, sudden cardiac arrest occurs when the heart suddenly stops beating. Many people use the terms sudden cardiac arrest and heart attack interchangeably, but they actually refer to two separate conditions. A heart attack occurs when a blockage prevents blood from flowing to the heart. Even when this happens, the heart will generally keep beating. With sudden cardiac arrest, however, the heart will stop beating entirely.

Causes of Sudden Cardiac Arrest

The majority of sudden cardiac arrests are caused by ventricular fibrillation, a type of arrhythmia that causes the lower chambers of the heart (the ventricles) to beat abnormally fast and with an irregular rhythm.

Other potential causes of sudden cardiac arrest include:

  • Coronary artery disease
  • Structural changes within the heart (these may result from high blood pressure, heart infections or advanced heart disease)
  • Abnormally low levels of magnesium or potassium within the blood
  • The release of adrenaline
  • Significant blood loss or lack of oxygen
  • Genetics

Symptoms of Sudden Cardiac Arrest

Although this does not always occur, in the hour prior to sudden cardiac arrest, a person may experience:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

In some cases, a person will have a racing heartbeat and feel dizzy or lightheaded immediately prior to sudden cardiac arrest. Then, when the person’s heart stops beating, he or she will faint.

If you experience these symptoms, call 911 immediately.

Diagnosing Sudden Cardiac Arrest

Because sudden cardiac arrest generally happens without warning, it is nearly impossible for a physician to diagnose this condition as it’s occurring. Once the event has taken place, a physician will diagnose the condition by ruling out other potential reasons for why the patient would have collapsed.

Treatment for Sudden Cardiac Arrest

Sudden cardiac arrest is a life-threatening emergency. Because this condition causes blood to stop flowing to the brain and the body’s other vital organs, it can cause death within just minutes if left untreated. Treatment for sudden cardiac arrest generally involves using a defibrillator to restore the heart’s normal rhythm.

Once a patient’s heartbeat has been restored, follow-up treatment will generally involve identifying what caused the sudden cardiac arrest and taking steps to prevent it from happening again. For example, if the cardiovascular specialists at Tampa General Hospital determine that a patient’s sudden cardiac arrest was caused by coronary artery disease, they may recommend surgery to restore blood flow through the effected arteries.