Cardiac arrest means that the heart suddenly stops beating. This is because of a problem with the heart's electrical system. When cardiac arrest occurs, emergency medical care needs to be provided right away. If it is not, the person can quickly die, since blood is not being pumped throughout the body.

Sudden cardiac arrest versus heart attack

Sudden cardiac arrest is not the same as a heart attack. Sudden cardiac arrest occurs when the heart malfunctions and suddenly stops beating. It is an electrical problem. A heart attack results from reduced blood flow to the heart, typically caused by coronary artery disease, and is a circulatory problem.

Symptoms of sudden cardiac arrest

Symptoms of sudden cardiac arrest include:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • No breathing
  • No pulse

Prior to cardiac arrest, some people report the following symptoms or warning signs in the weeks before the event:

  • Chest pain
  • Feeling weak
  • Pounding sensation in the chest
  • Feeling faint

Causes of sudden cardiac arrest

Sudden cardiac arrest may be caused by:

  • Heart attack
  • Cardiomyopathy – thickening of the heart muscle
  • Ventricular fibrillation – a rapid, irregular heart rhythm preventing any circulation of blood (most common cause of sudden cardiac arrest)
  • Ventricular tachycardia – a rapid but regular heart rhythm that, if sustained, may turn into ventricular fibrillation
  • Dramatic slowing of heart rate due to failure of its pacemaker or severe heart block (interference with electrical conduction)
  • Respiratory arrest
  • Choking or drowning
  • Electrocution
  • Hypothermia
  • Sudden loss of blood pressure
  • Complications from eating disorders
  • Unknown causes

Diagnosing sudden cardiac arrest

Given the emergent nature of sudden cardiac arrest, diagnoses are often made after the fact, often by ruling out other causes of a person’s symptoms.

Treatments for sudden cardiac arrest

Cardiac arrest occurs suddenly and without warning and is a medical emergency. Prompt treatment improves the chance of survival. The four steps in the cardiac chain of survival are:

  • Call 911.
  • Defibrillation. If an automated external defibrillator (AED) device is available, use it.
  • CPR. Begin administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) immediately and continue until emergency medical personnel arrive.
  • Advanced Medical Care. Emergency medical personnel at the scene and physicians at the hospital will provide essential medical care and intensive monitoring.

Managing risk for sudden cardiac arrest

You may be able to lower your risk of cardiac arrest by:

  • Learning the warning signs of heart disease and getting help right away if you develop any.
  • Talking to your physician about ways to become healthier if you are already diagnosed with a heart condition. For example, your physician may recommend that you take medication to prevent arrhythmias.
  • Asking your physician if you should have an AED in your home if you are at high risk of having cardiac arrest.

To find out if you are a risk for heart disease, take our online Heart Risk Assessment.

Heart specialists

The experienced heart specialists at Houston Heart are experts at diagnosing and treating heart disease. We can address your individual risk factors and help you take steps to prevent heart problems.

To learn more, schedule an appointment.