What Is Cardiac Arrest?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Cardiac arrest is a medical emergency where the heart ceases to pump and blood does not circulate through the body. If the patient does not receive immediate treatment, brain death can occur in four to six minutes. Many cases of cardiac arrest are treatable, although the patient will need additional care after she is stable. Treatment involves cardiopulmonary resuscitation to support the patient's circulatory system, followed by defibrillation, or application of an electrical impulse to restart the heart, if the heart enters a shockable rhythm.

A defibrillator.
A defibrillator.

Patients usually develop this condition because of an underlying disease, although it can also be the result of sudden trauma or electrical shock. The patient may report chest pain and discomfort, and when the heart stops beating the patient will rapidly slip into unconsciousness because the circulatory system no longer carries oxygen. Patients in cardiac arrest have no palpable pulse and do not breathe.

The anatomy of a heart attack.
The anatomy of a heart attack.

Immediate treatment involves chest compressions to pump the heart, forcing blood to circulate. In addition, the patient needs rescue breathing, where a care provider will force air into the lungs to promote oxygenation. A doctor can evaluate the patient to determine if defibrillation would be an effective treatment. A carefully placed electrical impulse can shock the heart into a normal rhythm, and it will start beating again. Usually the patient needs additional supportive care like supplementary oxygen and fluids to aid with recovery.

Immediate treatment of cardiac arrest includes chest compressions and rescue breathing.
Immediate treatment of cardiac arrest includes chest compressions and rescue breathing.

This condition can onset very suddenly, sometimes with no obvious warning. Because cardiac arrest can lead to clinical death within minutes, first aid is critical. Bystanders should call emergency services for assistance, but must also prepare to render medical aid themselves, because it is unlikely trained medical professionals will be able to reach the patient in time unless they happen to be among the bystanders. Basic first aid training includes cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and some facilities have automated defibrillator devices first aid providers can use; the device will assess the heart rhythm and tell the operator when a shock is indicated.

Preventative care to limit the chance of heart trouble can include a diet and exercise plan to promote cardiac health, along with treatment for underlying heart conditions. Patients with unstable heart rhythms may need to take medications or use an implanted device to manage their heart rhythm. Older adults and others at increased risk of cardiac arrest may be able to take additional steps to control their health and keep their hearts as healthy as possible.

Cardiac arrest can lead to clinical death within minutes.
Cardiac arrest can lead to clinical death within minutes.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I have to wonder besides there being no pulse what exactly are the signs of a cardiac arrest?

I would assume that no pulse would be enough to indicate that it is either happening or the person is dead and not coming back, but are there other symptoms that one must look for?

I know that it is best to let the professionals handle the situation, but in instances like this it is vital for anyone with the appropriate knowledge to act and try to save the person if the paramedics cannot get there quick enough.

That being said, it still takes time for the paramedics to reach the scene and it is important that someone does act in this situation and make sure that they do what is necessary to save the person before the paramedics can get there and it helps to know exactly what is wrong with the person and what the signs and symptoms are.


@jmc88 - Right you are. First aid and CPR is something that everyone should be able to do and should receive training for.

As far as CPR goes it has changed quite a bit over the years and it is somewhat a product of the times. The right way, at least as of a year ago is not to try to do mouth to mouth, because of the possible exchange of diseases, like HIV or others, that could occur.

The right way to do it is a repeated push of the diaphragm as fast and as intense as a person can. They say that it is best to have multiple people and to take turns doing it because if done right it is supposed to wear the person out within a couple of minutes.

In a situation in which someone's heart has stopped this would be the appropriate thing to do until paramedics could get there and try to shock the heart back into pumping blood.


@JimmyT - You are absolutely correct. Anyone and everyone should be taught first aid so if the situation arises they can spring into action and at least take care of the basic things that need to be done in a time critical situation.

Cardiac arrest usually happens with something traumatic and will warrant a bystander calling 911 immediately. I saw a movie with Harrison Ford recently where he was shot at a store and went into cardiac arrest barely before brain death.

Take this situation into real life a bystander seeing a person shot would immediately call 911 and state the situation and check his pulse immediately.

If he did not have a pulse, one should not just assume they are dead, they need to attempt to bring them back to life and force oxygen into them if necessary.

CPR teaches the right way to do it, but it has changed so much over the years I am unsure exactly what one should do until the paramedics arrive.


I have always wondered exactly what cardiac arrest was and exactly what it entailed. It seems like, in simple terms, cardiac arrest is simply the heart stopping all together and basically the person is dead with only minutes to bring them back.

I have heard of many instances where this has happened to people and the window to save them is very small and the window to save their brain and keep them from being in a vegetative state is a lot smaller.

I guess if someone were to go into cardiac arrest its best for a bystander to be by and have the presence of mind to check for a pulse and if not they need to know how important the situation is and how critical time is.

I actually learned a lot from this article and if something bad were to ever happen, and I'm around I'll be sure to check for a pulse and know that if there is none there is still a chance they can be saved.

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