Sudden Cardiac Arrest (also called Sudden Cardiac Death) is an immediate, unexpected death caused by a loss of heart function.
It is responsible for half of all deaths attributed to heart disease, causing approximately 325,000 adult deaths per year in the United States alone.
It is not a heart attack, but it can happen during a heart attack.
- The term “massive heart attack” is often used incorrectly by the media to describe sudden death.
- A heart attack is caused by a blockage in one or more of the arteries to the heart.
Sudden cardiac arrest is caused by a malfunction of the electrical system to the heart which causes a very irregular heart rhythm (an arrhythmia).
➡ The heart may beat too fast, too slow or irregularly.
➡ The ventricles may flutter or quiver (ventricular fibrillation), preventing blood from being delivered to the body.
The greatest concern initially is that the person will become unconscious due to reduced blood flow to the brain.
In this case, unless emergency treatment is started immediately, the person will die.
Sudden cardiac arrest symptoms are immediate and drastic. They include:
- Sudden collapse
- No pulse
- No breathing
- Loss of consciousness
Sometimes other signs and symptoms are noticed before the arrest. They may include
- chest pain
- shortness of breath
However, sudden cardiac arrest often happens without warning.
In a person with a normal, healthy heart, arrhythmias don’t just happen on their own. Trauma to the chest or the use of drugs such as amphetamines or cocaine are to blame.
Life-threatening arrhythmias (irregular heart rhythms) usually develop in a person with a pre-existing heart condition, such as:
- Coronary Artery Disease, where the arteries are clogged with cholesterol and fatty deposits, reducing blood flow to the heart.
- A heart attack (often related to severe coronary artery disease) can trigger Ventricular Fibrillation leading to a sudden cardiac arrest.
- Cardiomyopathy (an enlarged heart) often leads to heart tissue damage and potential arrhythmias.
- Leaking or narrowing of your heart valves (Valvular Heart Disease) can lead to stretching or thickening of your heart muscle or both and with it, an increased risk of developing a fatal arrhythmia.
- When sudden cardiac arrest happens to children or adolescents, it may be due to a heart condition that was present at birth (congenital heart disease). Even adults who’ve had corrective surgery for a congenital heart defect have a higher risk.
Because a sudden cardiac arrest is so often linked to coronary artery disease, the same issues can put you at risk. These include:
- A family history of coronary artery disease
- High blood pressure
- High blood cholesterol
- A sedentary lifestyle
- Drinking too much alcohol (more than two drinks a day)
- Age — the incidence of sudden cardiac arrest increases with age
- Being male — men are two to three times more likely to experience sudden cardiac arrest
- Nutritional imbalance, such as low potassium or magnesium levels
When sudden cardiac arrest happens, the brain is the first part of the body to be affected, because, unlike other organs, it doesn’t have a reserve of oxygen-rich blood.
- The brain is completely dependent on an uninterrupted supply of blood. Reduced blood flow to your brain causes unconsciousness.
- When the heart stops, the lack of oxygenated blood can cause permanent brain damage within 4-6 minutes.
- If sudden cardiac arrest lasts more than 8 minutes, survival is rare, and survivors may show signs of brain damage.
Sudden Cardiac Arrest is a medical emergency. If not treated immediately, it causes sudden cardiac death.
- With fast, appropriate medical care, survival is possible. Call 911 or your local emergency service immediately.
- Administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), treating with a defibrillator — or even just compressions to the chest — can improve the chances of survival until emergency personnel arrives.
When to see a doctor
If you have:
- Frequent episodes of chest pain or discomfort
- Heart palpitations
- Irregular or rapid heartbeats
- Unexplained wheezing or shortness of breath
- Fainting or near fainting, or you’re feeling lightheaded or dizzy, see your doctor promptly.