Sudden Cardiac Arrest

Treating Cardiovascular Diseases in Wisconsin and Northern Illinois

Sudden cardiac arrest occurs when the heart suddenly and unexpectedly stops beating. This causes blood to stop flowing to the brain and other vital organs.

This life-threatening condition requires immediate treatment with a defibrillator, a device that sends an electric shock to the heart to restore a normal rhythm. Survival can be as high as 90 percent if treatment is initiated within the first minutes of this condition occurring.

Without this treatment, a person experiencing sudden cardiac arrest can quickly die, resulting in a condition known as sudden cardiac death. In the United States, sudden cardiac arrest is responsible for half of all heart-related deaths. It’s also the largest cause of natural death.

Sudden Cardiac Arrest Symptoms

Two explicit symptoms of sudden cardiac arrest include:

  • A loss of consciousness, or fainting
  • No pulse or heartbeat

Some people experience warning signs up to an hour before sudden cardiac arrest occurs. These signs and symptoms may include:

  • A racing heartbeat or palpitations
  • Chest pain
  • Dizziness or light-headedness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Shortness of breath

Risks and Causes of Sudden Cardiac Arrest

There are several risk factors for sudden cardiac arrest, which include:

  • Advancing age
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Inherited disorders, such as long QT syndrome or genetic heart disease
  • Physical stress
  • Underlying heart conditions, such as coronary artery disease, arrhythmias, heart failure or a recent heart attack                           

A very serious type of arrhythmia, known as ventricular fibrillation, causes most cases of sudden cardiac arrest. This irregular heartbeat begins in your heart’s lower chambers, which pump blood to your body. When ventricular fibrillation occurs, these chambers quiver rapidly, preventing your body from receiving the blood it needs.

Another arrhythmia that causes sudden cardiac arrest is bradycardia, a very slow heartbeat. Sudden cardiac arrest can also occur when the heart doesn’t respond to the heart’s electrical signals. Learn more about the heart’s electrical system and how it causes arrhythmia symptoms. 

Diagnosing Your Risks for Sudden Cardiac Arrest

If you’re at risk for sudden cardiac arrest, your doctor may refer you to a cardiologist, who specializes in treating heart disease, or you may be referred to a cardiac electrophysiologist, who specializes in treating the heart’s electrical system.

After asking about your personal and family health histories and conducting a physical exam, your doctor may want to evaluate your condition more thoroughly with any of the following tests:

  • Electrocardiograph testing (EKG)
  • Invasive testing, such as a cardiac catheterization or electrophysiology studies
  • Lab testing to check electrolyte levels in your blood
  • Nuclear testing, such as  MUGA scans
  • Radiographic testing, such as MRIs
  • Ultrasound testing, also known as echocardiography

Treating and Preventing Sudden Cardiac Arrest

A person experiencing sudden cardiac arrest needs to be treated with a defibrillator right away. This device sends an electric shock to the heart, which can restore a normal heart rhythm. However, timing is crucial. With every minute that passes after the onset of symptoms, chances of surviving quickly diminish.

If you suspect someone has signs or symptoms of sudden cardiac arrest, call 911 right away. Police and emergency medical technicians are trained and equipped to use defibrillators.

Many public places, such as airports, schools, shopping malls and sports venues, have special defibrillators that untrained bystanders can use. These devices, known as automated external defibrillators, are programmed to give an electrical shock only if they detect a dangerous arrhythmia. They won’t deliver a shock to someone who has fainted for other reasons.

If you survive a sudden cardiac arrest, you are likely to be admitted to a hospital for testing to determine what triggered your condition. If coronary artery disease or arrhythmia caused your sudden cardiac arrest, those conditions will be treated.

Often when an arrhythmia triggers sudden cardiac arrest, people receive an implantable cardiac defibrillator (ICD), This small device is implanted under your skin near your heart. It can detect when you are having an abnormal heart beat that may lead to sudden cardiac arrest, and can then deliver an electrical pulse to your heart to help stop the dangerous arrhythmias.

A Leader in Diagnosing and Treating Heart Disease

Aurora Health Care is a nationally recognized leader in diagnosing, managing and treating the conditions that increase your risk for sudden cardiac arrest. Starting in 1977, Aurora Health Care’s Cardiac Electrophysiology Department in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was one of the first programs in the nation to diagnose and treat patients with heart rhythm disorders. Our program treats more patients than any other health organization in the country.

Our physicians and nurses provide state-of-the art, comprehensive care for patients suffering from all types of heart conditions. We use the most advanced technologies available, some of which we developed.

Aurora doctors are conveniently located throughout eastern Wisconsin and northeastern Illinois. Find a doctor or heart specialist near you. To get a second opinion or if you need assistance finding a provider, please call 888-649-6892.