Sudden Cardiac Arrest (Sudden Cardiac Death)

  • Medical Author:
    Benjamin Wedro, MD, FACEP, FAAEM

    Dr. Ben Wedro practices emergency medicine at Gundersen Clinic, a regional trauma center in La Crosse, Wisconsin. His background includes undergraduate and medical studies at the University of Alberta, a Family Practice internship at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario and residency training in Emergency Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

  • Medical Editor: Daniel Lee Kulick, MD, FACC, FSCAI
    Daniel Lee Kulick, MD, FACC, FSCAI

    Daniel Lee Kulick, MD, FACC, FSCAI

    Dr. Kulick received his undergraduate and medical degrees from the University of Southern California, School of Medicine. He performed his residency in internal medicine at the Harbor-University of California Los Angeles Medical Center and a fellowship in the section of cardiology at the Los Angeles County-University of Southern California Medical Center. He is board certified in Internal Medicine and Cardiology.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

Quiz: Sudden Cardiac Arrest!

What are the symptoms of sudden cardiac arrest?

Cardiac arrest symptoms and signs are not subtle:

  • The heart stops beating and blood is not supplied to the body.
  • Almost immediate loss of consciousness occurs, and the affected person will not be able to be aroused.
  • The person will fall or slump over.
  • No pulse will is felt (palpable).
  • There will be no signs of breathing.

How is sudden cardiac arrest diagnosed?

Sudden cardiac arrest is an unexpected death in a person who had no known previous diagnosis of a fatal disease or condition. The person may or may not have heart disease.

What is the treatment for sudden cardiac arrest?

The vast majority of people whose heart stops beating unexpectedly have ventricular fibrillation. The definitive treatment for this is defibrillation using electricity to shock the heart back into a regular rhythm. With technological advances, AEDs are now a routine sight wherever people congregate.

Communities which institute public CPR education, use of AEDs, and rapid activation of 911 emergency medical services have dramatically increased survival rates from sudden cardiac arrest. Unfortunately, because the brain is so sensitive to the lack of oxygen and blood flow, unless treatment occurs within four to six minutes, there is a high risk of some permanent brain damage.

Should the patient survive to be transported to the hospital, the reason for collapse and sudden death will need to be diagnosed. Regardless, the ABCs of resuscitation will be re-evaluated. Airway, Breathing, and Circulation (heart beat and blood pressure) will be supported, and admission to an intensive care unit is most likely.

Diagnostic tests may include repeated electrocardiograms (EKGs), echocardiogram (ultrasounds of the heart), and cardiac catheterization and electrophysiologic studies, in which the electrical pathways of the heart are mapped.

Recent research involving the treatment of survivors of cardiac arrest suggests that prompt institution of hypothermia (cooling of the body) may prevent or lessen the degree of brain injury.

Survivors of sudden cardiac arrest are often candidates for implantable cardiac defibrillators.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 6/8/2015
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