Tools & Resources
Sudden Cardiac Arrest: Why It Happens
Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD
You collapse without warning. Your heart stops beating, and blood stops flowing to your brain and other organs. Within seconds, you stop breathing and have no pulse. This is sudden cardiac arrest.
What Causes It?
The immediate cause of most sudden cardiac arrests is an abnormal heart rhythm. The heart’s electrical activity becomes chaotic, and it can’t pump blood to the rest of the body.
Conditions that can trigger sudden cardiac arrest include:
• Coronary artery disease. This is the most common cause of sudden cardiac arrest in people older than 35.
• Cardiomyopathy. When you have this condition, your heart muscle becomes enlarged or thick, so it's weakened.
• Long QT syndrome and Brugada syndrome. These disorders of the heart’s electrical system can cause abnormal heart rhythms.
• Marfan syndrome. This inherited disorder can cause parts of the heart to stretch and become weak.
• Problems with the heart structure that are present at birth. Even if you have had surgery to correct a defect, you are still at risk for sudden cardiac arrest.
Other things that can raise your chance include:
• Being male
• Age -- the risk is higher for men after age 45 and for women after age 55
• A previous cardiac arrest or heart attack
• A family history of cardiac arrest or heart disease
What to Do
With quick action, you can survive sudden cardiac arrest. CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) needs to begin immediately, and treatment with an automated external defibrillator (AED) within a few minutes. “Every second counts,” says Gregg Fonarow, MD, cardiology professor at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine
Call 911 if you have symptoms such as:
• Discomfort in one or both arms, or in the back, neck, or jaw
• Unexplained shortness of breath
If someone you are with shows signs of a sudden cardiac arrest, call 911 or ask someone else to call. Be calm, and check to see if the person is able to respond to you. Start doing CPR right away if he is unconscious and is not breathing. CPR will keep the blood circulating to the brain and other organs. You can stop if he begins breathing, or when emergency medical services arrive and take over.
While you're doing CPR, get someone else to look for an automated external defibrillator (AED) and use it immediately. An AED is a portable device that sends an electric shock through the chest to the heart when needed. The shock can restore a normal rhythm to the heart. There are AEDs in many public places, like shopping malls, airports, hotels, and schools.
If You're at Risk
Talk with your doctor.
There are steps you can take to lower your risk. Your doctor may recommendmedication, surgery, or other treatments or lifestyle changes. Someone in your household should be trained in CPR and in the use of an AED.
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