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Cardiac Arrest: Knowing The Symptoms And Responses Can Increase Survival Rates

Christine O'Kelly
May 11, 2008
More than 250,000 people die each year in the United States from sudden cardiac arrest. It is the leading cause of death in America, killing more people than breast cancer, prostate cancer, motor vehicle accidents, and gunshot wounds combined. Yet many people are still unaware of the symptoms of cardiac arrest and how CPR can help increase a victim's chance at survival.

What Is Cardiac Arrest?

First and foremost, cardiac arrest is not a heart attack. A heart attack is more of a "plumbing issue" when a blockage prevents blood from properly being pumped through the heart. Cardiac arrest is an "electrical issue" when the body's electrical signals used to control the heart's rhythmic pumping become irregular and chaotic. This basically shuts down the heart and blood cannot be pumped to the rest of the body.

As scary as it sounds, cardiac arrest rarely happens as a random event. Most victims suffer from some degree of heart disease or other problems - even if they appear completely healthy on the outside.

What Are Its Symptoms?

When the heart stops working, symptoms are scary and immediate. A cardiac arrest victim will slump to the ground and stop breathing. They lose consciousness and no longer have a pulse. They will not respond to gentle shaking or tapping.

For true sudden cardiac arrest, there really are typically no symptoms leading into this catastrophic event. However, cardiac arrest is often coupled with a heart attack. Many times the heart attack will bring on cardiac arrest and that is why the heart stops beating. So knowing the signs of a heart attack can also be important. These include shortness of breath, a tightening of the chest, pain in the upper extremities and lightheadedness.

What Are Proper Responses?

Bystander's reactions when faced with handling the life-and-death situation of a cardiac arrest are critical to a victim's survival. There are certain things, like CPR, that a bystander can do to greatly increase the chances of a cardiac arrest victim surviving the attack.

The first thing is to have someone call 911 immediately. The quicker trained medical staff can take over, the better! Secondly, begin administering CPR while someone else checks to see if an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) is available. An AED is a portable electronic device used to shock the heart's rhythm back on track. Continue with CPR and the AED until the paramedics arrive on the scene.

Survival Rates

Brain death occurs 4-6 minutes after sudden cardiac arrest without implementing CPR. That is why even if an AED is not available, providing simple CPR until the paramedics arrive can have a huge impact on the outcome. By continuing to manually pump blood throughout the body the brain and other organs are kept alive.

The American Heart Association states that when CPR and defibrillation are administered within eight minutes of a cardiac arrest, the victim's chance of survival increases to 20%. When these steps are provided within four minutes and the paramedics arrive within eight minutes, the likelihood of survival increases to over 40%.

It is unfortunate, but until everyone is properly trained in CPR and first aid, surviving a cardiac arrest is really about being in the right place at the right time. Since most cardiac arrests statistically happen in the home, becoming CPR trained might just mean you will one day save the life of a good friend or loved one!
About the Author
Christine O'Kelly is an author for Annuvia, a company that provides businesses and other organizations with customized safety, emergency response, CPR training, and health/wellness solutions designed by healthcare and emergency response professionals.
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