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Sudden Cardiac Arrest

During sudden cardiac arrest, your heart suddenly stops beating and no longer pumps blood to your body. This is different from a heart attack.

Cardiac arrest is very dangerous and can lead to death if your heart doesn't restart in minutes.

Contact the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute

To request an appointment, contact the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute:

What Is Sudden Cardiac Arrest?

Sudden cardiac arrest is when your heart stops beating, and it no longer pumps blood to your body.

Cardiac arrest isn't the same as a heart attack.

In a heart attack, blood flow to your heart muscle gets blocked, causing part of your heart muscle to die. During cardiac arrest, your heart stops completely.

Cardiac arrest leads to death if someone doesn't get your heart restarted within minutes.

Sudden cardiac arrest causes and risk factors

Many people who have cardiac arrest don't know they have a heart problem.

Sudden cardiac arrest often happens because of a problem with the heart's electrical system. The heart beats too fast and irregularly, a problem called ventricular fibrillation.

Some heart conditions can increase the risk of cardiac arrest, including:

Illegal drugs — such as opioids, cocaine, and amphetamines — can also increase the risk of sudden cardiac arrest.

Why choose UPMC for heart rhythm care?

The UPMC Cardiac Electrophysiology Program provides complete services and care to people with heart rhythm problems.

With advanced imaging techniques and a range of minimally invasive treatments, our program is the largest of its kind in western Pennsylvania.

Sudden Cardiac Arrest Symptoms and Diagnosis

Sudden cardiac arrest symptoms and signs

Cardiac arrest happens suddenly without warning.

Signs of cardiac arrest to look for

Someone having sudden cardiac arrest may:

  • Not be able to respond when asked if OK.
  • Stop breathing or have trouble breathing.

If someone is showing signs of cardiac arrest, call 911 and start CPR or use a defibrillator right away.

Diagnosing sudden cardiac arrest

Once you're at the hospital, doctors may order tests to learn the cause of cardiac arrest and the extent of physical damage.

Imaging scans and tests to assess neurological function and brain activity after sudden cardiac arrest include:

  • EEG (electroencephalogram)
  • MRI
  • CT scan
  • PET scan
  • Blood tests

How to prevent sudden cardiac arrest

Following a heart-healthy lifestyle can help prevent sudden cardiac arrest.

Ways you can improve your heart health include:

  • Quitting smoking.
  • Eating fruits and vegetables every day.
  • Exercising regularly.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Drinking alcohol in moderation.

The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute also has a range of heart health community programs.

Sudden Cardiac Arrest Treatment

Sudden cardiac arrest is an emergency.

When cardiac arrest happens, the first step is to restart the heart immediately.

Someone needs to perform CPR or use an automated external defibrillator (AED) right away. An AED is a device that shocks the heart to start it pumping again.

You should also call 911. After restarting the heart, the person needs to get to the emergency room.

ER doctors will try to learn the cause of the cardiac arrest and prevent it from happening again.

Preventive treatments for sudden cardiac arrest

Treatments for heart rhythm disorders can help prevent cardiac arrest, such as:

  • Medicine.
  • Implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD). This implanted device tracks heart rhythm and can deliver a shock if the heart begins to beat in an abnormal rhythm.
  • Catheter ablation. This technique destroys a small part of the heart that causes the dangerous rhythm. A doctor does this through tubes and wires inserted in a blood vessel.