Cardiac Arrest Symptoms and Causes

Medical Author:
Medical Editor:

Cardiac arrest is the sudden loss of cardiac function, when the heart abruptly stops beating. A person whose heart has stopped will lose consciousness and stop normal breathing, and their pulse and blood pressure will be absent. Unless resuscitative efforts are begun immediately, cardiac arrest leads to death within a few minutes. This is often referred to by doctors as "sudden death" or "sudden cardiac death (SCD)."

Ventricular fibrillation is the most common cause of cardiac arrest. Ventricular fibrillation occurs when the normal, regular, electrical activation of heart muscle contraction is replaced by chaotic electrical activity that causes the heart to stop beating and pumping blood to the brain and other parts of the body. Permanent brain damage and death can occur unless the flow of blood to the brain is restored within five minutes. Heart attack is the most common cause of ventricular fibrillation. Less common causes of cardiac arrest include respiratory arrest (loss of breathing function), choking, trauma, electrocution, and drowning.

Early cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and defibrillation (electrical impulses delivered to the chest to restore normal heart rhythm) are the only way to reverse a cardiac arrest. These lifesaving measures must be instituted within a few minutes after cardiac arrest in order to have any chance of success. For every minute that passes without defibrillation, a person's chances of survival decrease by 7% to 10%. In areas where emergency medical services are able to provide defibrillation within five to seven minutes, the survival rate for cardiac arrest has been reported to be as high as 49%. It is rare for a resuscitation to be successful if more than ten minutes have elapsed following a cardiac arrest.