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Sudden cardiac arrest is a medical emergency that can be fatal if not treated immediately. It is not the same as a heart attack, and has received much less publicity, but sudden death from cardiac arrest is a major problem in modern society.

The chance of surviving a sudden cardiac arrest is largely dependent on immediate medical care, so keep reading as it could help you save a life one day in the future.

Defining sudden cardiac arrest

Sudden cardiac arrest occurs when the heart stops pumping blood to the body and brain. It usually occurs when the electrical impulses in the heart become rapid or chaotic, and the heart beats so fast it quivers instead of pumping blood throughout the body. Sometimes a cardiac arrest can occur due to extreme slowing of the heart.

The sudden cessation of blood flow and loss of oxygen to the brain causes unconsciousness and breathing to stop. Untreated, it can lead to brain injury then death within four to six minutes.

Symptoms of cardiac arrest

Sometimes sudden cardiac arrest is preceded by a racing heart beat or feeling dizzy. Other signs may include blackouts, shortness of breath, chest pain or fainting, but often there is no warning, and a victim of cardiac arrest can lose consciousness before they can ask for help.

The symptoms of sudden cardiac arrest are very major:

  • Sudden collapse 
  • Unconsciousness
  • No breathing
  • No pulse

Because blood is not being pumped there is a lack of circulation and therefore no carotid pulse.

Causes of cardiac arrest

Sudden cardiac arrest is most likely to occur in people with underlying heart problems, especially those with coronary artery disease. The immediate cause of sudden cardiac arrest is caused by an electrical problem in the heart, when the electrical pulses through the heart result in it beating too fast, too slow, or irregularly.

This is known as arrhythmia.

A sustained arrhythmia is unlikely to develop in a person with a healthy heart unless there is trigger such as an electric shock, drug abuse or chest trauma. However, if there is a pre-existing heart condition then it is much more likely that a life-threatening arrhythmia may develop.

There are several types of heart conditions that can put people are risk including an enlarged heart, valvular heart disease and congenital heart disease, but the major one is coronary heart disease. With coronary heart disease the coronary arteries are narrowed by fatty buildups of cholesterol and other deposits. This reduces the blood flow to the heart which can reduce its ability to conduct the electrical impulses. Severe coronary artery disease can then lead to a heart attack which results in an area of dead tissue in the heart which can then cause further electrical short circuits. Over 80 per cent of sudden cardiac arrest victims have coronary artery disease.

People most at risk for sudden cardiac arrest are:

  • Those with coronary artery disease 
  • People who have had a heart attack
  • Those who have previously survived a sudden cardiac arrest
  • People with a family history of sudden cardiac arrest
  • Those with primary heart rhythm abnormalities

Causes not related to existing heart conditions can include overdoses, traumas, infections and cancer.

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