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Cardiac Arrest May Not Come Out of the Blue

Sudden cardiac arrest may not always be so sudden, heart experts say.

A recent study has found that cardiac arrest symptoms in men can appear at least a month ahead of time. Signs can include chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, fainting or palpitations.

About 360,000 Americans suffer cardiac arrest each year. Fewer than 10 percent survive. It is responsible for half of all heart disease-related deaths.

"Cardiac arrest is usually linked to heart disease, such as a previous heart attack or coronary artery disease. But this is not always the case," said Steven Levi, MD, FACC, an electrophysiologist with The Heart House. "Sudden cardiac arrest is a medical emergency. If not treated immediately, a person can die within a few minutes."

Out of Rhythm
Sudden cardiac arrest differs from a heart attack. Cardiac arrest occurs when electrical impulses in the heart become rapid or chaotic, causing the heart to stop beating. A heart attack happens when the blood supply to the heart is blocked.

The most common cause of cardiac arrest is an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia) called ventricular fibrillation. This occurs when erratic electrical impulses cause your heart's lower chambers to quiver instead of pumping blood.

Cardiac arrest is immediate and drastic. Symptoms include:

  • Sudden collapse
  • No pulse
  • No breathing
  • Loss of consciousness

"When someone suffers cardiac arrest, the brain is the first part of the body to suffer. Unlike other organs, it does not have a reserve of oxygen-rich blood. It relies on the heart," said Dr. Levi. "Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and external shocks from a defibrillator can help restart the heart. But if your heart rhythm isn't restored within 10 minutes, death or permanent brain damage is likely."

Prior Symptoms
In the new study, researchers examined medical records of 800 men aged 35 to 65 who had an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest during a 12-year period in Portland, Oregon.

Of the 567 men who had an arrest, researchers determined 53 percent had symptoms beforehand. Those included chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, fainting and flu-like symptoms.

Eighty percent of the symptoms happened between four weeks and one hour before the actual arrest. Most of the men had heart disease, but only half had been diagnosed.

"The risk of cardiac arrest increases with age, but that doesn't mean younger people are immune," said Dr. Levi. "If you have these kinds of symptoms, don't blow them off. Seek care immediately."

Last reviewed: January 2014

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