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Sudden Cardiac Arrest FAQs

Reviewed by Charles P. Davis, MD, PhD

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Q:Sudden cardiac arrest is the medical term for heart attack. True or False?

A:False. While sudden cardiac arrest can happen during a heart attack (myocardial infarction), sudden cardiac arrest and heart attack are not the same medical event. A heart attack occurs when some of the heart muscle tissue does not receive oxygen as a result of blockage of one or more arteries that lead to the heart. Sudden cardiac arrest means the heart suddenly stops beating.

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Q:Sudden cardiac arrest is subtle and bystanders may not notice what has occurred. True or False?

A:False. Sudden cardiac arrest is by no means subtle. Loss of consciousness occurs almost immediately and it is not possible to awaken the affected person. Additionally, the person will immediately drop, fall, or slump. No pulse is detectable, and there will be no signs of breathing. Sudden cardiac arrest is also referred to as "sudden cardiac death" because the event is almost always fatal.

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Q:What is sudden cardiac arrest?

A:Sudden cardiac arrest usually results in death, means the heart suddenly stops beating and involves an electrical malfunction in the heart. Sudden cardiac arrest means that the heart has suddenly ceased to beat. This is caused by an electrical "short circuit" within the heart, after which the heart can no longer pump blood. Unless immediate medical attention is given, sudden cardiac arrest usually results in sudden death.

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Q:Extremely low blood pressure is a symptom of sudden cardiac arrest. True or False?

A:True. Sudden cardiac arrest is a severe medical emergency. Signs and symptoms of sudden cardiac arrest are loss of consciousness, dangerously low blood pressure, lack of pulse, and rapid, shallow breathing that almost immediately progresses to the absence of breathing (apnea). Although unusual, some people experience symptoms before sudden cardiac arrest occurs; the symptoms may include a racing heartbeat, chest pain, near syncope, or dizziness. In most individuals, sudden cardiac arrest occurs with no symptoms at all.

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Q:Sudden cardiac arrest does not occur in young people. True or False?

A:False. Although it is rare in young people, sudden death does occur in young people and often affects young athletes. The most common cause of sudden cardiac arrest in young people is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (hypertrophy=to grow abnormally large + cardio=heart + myopathy = diseased muscle). Commotio cordis is also seen in young athletes who unexpectedly collapse during play. Commotio cordis occurs as a result of blunt chest trauma from an event such as a car accident or a direct hit by an object such as a baseball. In athletes 35 years and older, sudden cardiac death occurs more often while running or jogging.

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Q:Sudden cardiac death is considered a natural death. True or False?

A:True. Sudden cardiac death (SCD) is the leading cause of natural death in America, and is responsible for nearly 325,000 deaths in the U.S. every year. In terms of heart disease, sudden cardiac death is responsible for half of all heart disease deaths.

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Q:What are risk factors for sudden cardiac death?

A:Obesity. Many factors can increase the risk of sudden cardiac arrest and sudden cardiac death, including: - Obesity - Diabetes - Previous heart attack - Previous sudden cardiac arrest - Coronary artery disease (CAD) - Congenital heart defects - Unexplained fainting episodes Family history of: - Sudden cardiac arrest - Sudden cardiac death - Heart disease - High cholesterol - Certain abnormal heart rhythms

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Q:Sudden cardiac arrest is a death sentence. True or False?

A:False. Sudden cardiac arrest is not necessarily a death sentence. In fact, sudden cardiac arrest can be treated and reversed, but only if action is taken immediately. If treatment such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is administered immediately, survival rates can be as high as 90%.

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Q:How does CPR help a person who has experienced sudden cardiac arrest?

A:Keeping blood and oxygen circulating through the body. Done properly, CPR can save a person's life because the procedure keeps blood and oxygen circulating through the body. If you should happen to witness someone experiencing sudden cardiac arrest, call 911 and initiate CPR until help arrives.

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Q:Most people who experience sudden cardiac death or sudden cardiac arrest have known heart disease. True or False?

A:False. Although heart disease is largely responsible for sudden death and other cardiac events, people who experience sudden cardiac death or sudden cardiac arrest often have not been diagnosed with heart disease.

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Q:What does the term "arrhythmia" mean?

A:Irregular heartbeat. The term arrhythmia (also called dysrhythmia) means "irregular heartbeat." The heart normally beats at 50-100 beats per minute. "Bradyarrhythmia" is the medical term for a slow heart rate, meaning the heart beats fewer than 50 beats per minute. Rapid heart rates are those in excess of 100 beats per minute. Such rapid heart rates are call "tachyarrythmias."

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Q:What is the most common reason for sudden death?

A:Ventricular fibrillation. The most common reason for sudden death is ventricular fibrillation, or V-fib. With V-fib, the electrical system in the heart malfunctions, which causes the ventricle chambers of the heart to flutter in an uncoordinated manner. This disorganized quivering causes the ventricles to contract improperly, so the heart stops pumping blood. Ventricular fibrillation is a life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical attention.

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