Sudden Cardiac Arrest

Sudden Cardiac Arrest 

By Dr. Scott Turner

You probably don’t know it, but sudden cardiac arrest is a big problem in the United States today. Sudden cardiac arrest, sometimes referred to as SCA, is a leading cause of death in the US. In fact, about 335,000 people die each year of sudden cardiac arrest according to the American Heart Association and affects men and women equally. To put that number in perspective, more people die from sudden cardiac arrest in the US than breast cancer, stroke and HIV/AIDS combined.

Yet while SCA may not be well known, it is highly preventable. The key to keeping more people alive is to identify people at risk of sudden cardiac arrest and preventing an event from ever happening. Sudden cardiac arrest is often confused with a heart attack, but they are different. Sudden cardiac arrest is caused by a heart rhythm problem.

A heart attack is caused by a circulation problem in the heart. It occurs when one or more of the arteries delivering blood to the heart are blocked. Oxygen in the blood cannot reach the heart muscle, and the heart muscle is damaged.  A heart attack refers to the death of heart muscle tissue from the loss of blood supply. It may help if you think of a heart attack as a “plumbing problem” in the heart. A heart attack is often preceded by symptoms such as pain in the chest, arm, upper abdomen, or jaw. Nausea and sweating are common. Heart attack patients usually remain conscious.

Sudden cardiac arrest is caused by a heart rhythm problem. You can think of it as an electrical problem in the heart. Sudden cardiac arrest happens if your heart suddenly starts beating very fast and quivers instead of beating in a regular and organized way. No blood gets pumped. There are no specific symptoms before sudden cardiac arrest. Even though a person may feel healthy, he or she may still be at risk. Sudden cardiac arrest can happen to people anywhere and at anytime. You could be out for a walk, in the shower, or at your desk at work. Sudden cardiac arrest strikes without warning.

A person experiencing sudden cardiac arrest (in contrast to a heart attack):

Suddenly loses consciousness and does not respond to gentle shaking or to sounds and voices.

Does not move

Does not breathe or take a normal breath for several seconds, or cough

Does not have a pulse

Sudden cardiac arrest victims always lose consciousness and dies within minutes unless treated effectively within minutes.

About 95% of people who experience sudden cardiac arrest die simply because time is of the essence. A person must have the heart rhythm reset with a defibrillator within six minutes to survive. So, if you are ever in a situation where you think a person has experienced sudden cardiac arrest, call 911 immediately. Many of the deaths from sudden cardiac arrest can be prevented. Because of new medical research, we can identify who may be at higher risk for sudden cardiac arrest and can do something to protect those individuals.

Known risk factors for Sudden Cardiac Arrest include:

Prior heart attack, bypass surgery or angioplasty/stent implant

Low ejection fraction (EF) at or below 35%. EF is a key indicator of heart health and is frequently used to determine the pumping function of the heart. It is the amount of blood pumped out of the heart during each beat or contraction.

Prior sudden cardiac arrest

Blood relative who has had a sudden cardiac arrest

Previous heart failure

So, what can you do to make sure that you or someone you love is protected from having a sudden cardiac arrest?

If you think you or someone you care for has one or more of the risk factors, PLEASE talk to your doctor about sudden cardiac arrest as soon as possible. If you are unsure know how to start this discussion with your doctor, please use the list of known risk factors provided above to get the ball rolling.

Remember, having a sudden cardiac arrest doesn’t need to result in someone dying. There are treatment options, including implantable cardioverter defibrillators, that can save your life or the life of someone you care about.

Author Dr. Scott Turner is certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine-Internal Cardiovascular Disease and a Sherman Cardiovascular Care Associate.