There are several conditions that can cause a sudden cardiac emergency, and it is important to understand their signs and symptoms before they strike. Sudden cardiac arrest and a heart attack are two such conditions, which are often confused with one another. Knowing their differences and the symptoms, risk factors and treatment of sudden cardiac arrest is vital in an emergency situation.
How is Sudden Cardiac Arrest Different from a Heart Attack?
Sudden cardiac arrest is not a heart attack. A heart attack occurs when there is a blockage in one or more of the coronary arteries, preventing the heart from receiving the oxygen-rich blood it needs to function properly. When oxygen in the blood can't reach the heart muscle, the heart becomes damaged.
Sudden cardiac arrest occurs when the electrical system to the heart malfunctions and suddenly becomes very irregular. This causes the heart to beat dangerously fast. The ventricles may flutter or quiver (ventricular fibrillation), and blood is not delivered to the body. The greatest concern lies within the first two minutes of a cardiac arrest; if blood flow to the brain is reduced too drastically, the person will lose consciousness. Sudden cardiac death (SCD) follows unless emergency treatment is begun immediately.
Emergency Treatment of Sudden Cardiac Arrest
Emergency treatment of sudden cardiac arrest includes CPR and defibrillation. The process of CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) keeps enough oxygen in the lungs and to the brain until the normal heart rhythm is restored with an electric shock to the chest (defibrillation). Portable defibrillators used by emergency profesionals, or public access defibrillators (AEDs) may help save the person's life.
What are the risk factors of sudden cardiac arrest?
There are several factors that can increase a person's risk of sudden cardiac arrest and sudden cardiac death. The two leading risk factors include:
- Previous heart attack (75% of SCD cases are linked to a previous heart attack). A person's risk of SCD is higher during the first six months after a heart attack.
- Coronary artery disease (80% of SCD cases are linked with this disease). Risk factors for coronary artery disease include: smoking, family history of cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol or an enlarged heart.
Heart disease prevention and education is a topic of focus in the United States, and with good reason: approximately 600,000 Americans die each year from heart disease. Sudden cardiac death is the leading cause of natural death in the United States, causing about 325,000 adult deaths in the United States each year.
You can reduce your risk of heart disease by visiting with your doctor regularly, making healthy lifestyle changes, taking medications correctly as prescribed and having procedures or surgery, as recommended by your physician.