How AEDs work

An AED is a device that can be attached to your chest. It senses your heart's rhythm during cardiac arrest and, in some cases, delivers an electric shock to get your heart beating again.

The home AED comes with a short instructional training video that shows how to use and maintain the device. You should watch the video when you buy the device, and periodically review the video to refresh your memory on how to use the device.

In an emergency, the automated external defibrillator essentially makes the decisions. It offers step-by-step voice instructions to guide a user through the defibrillation process. It explains how to check for breathing and a pulse and how to position electrode pads on the person's chest.

Once the pads are in place, the AED automatically measures the person's heart rhythm and determines if a shock is needed. If it is, the machine tells a user to stand back and instructs the user to push a button to deliver the shock. It will also guide users through CPR. The process can be repeated as needed until emergency crews take over.

Deciding if an AED is right for your home

Having a home AED isn't right for everyone. A home AED will deliver a shock only if a person's heart has stopped due to a specific heart rhythm problem. It's also possible that a person using an AED may not use the device correctly under the stressful circumstances of providing care to a person who's in cardiac arrest.

But for some people who have a high risk of cardiac arrest, having an AED may provide peace of mind and may help save a life. There's no specific list of criteria to decide if an automated external defibrillator would be appropriate for your home. But here are some things to keep in mind as you consider whether to buy an automated external defibrillator:

  • Your risk of sudden cardiac death. Your doctor can help you understand if you have a condition that may put you at higher risk of cardiac arrest or if you're leading a lifestyle that could cause heart problems. In most people who are at high risk of sudden cardiac death, doctors will recommend a device called an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD) rather than an AED. Remember that AEDs work only for cardiac arrest that involves specific types of heart fibrillation. It will not revive everyone in cardiac arrest. And with certain types of heart disease, you may need a defibrillator that's actually implanted in your chest instead of an external device for emergencies.
  • Your living arrangements. If you live alone, an AED will be of little use if you have cardiac arrest — there won't be anyone to use the machine on you.
  • Your physical abilities. You or a family member must have the flexibility and strength to sit or squat on the floor, use the device, and get back up.
  • Your costs. Home AEDs can be expensive. Health insurance doesn't generally pick up the tab.
  • Your overall health and philosophy. If you have numerous medical problems, a terminal illness or a very weak heart that hasn't responded to treatment, you may decide that you wouldn't want to be resuscitated from sudden cardiac death.

Tips for proper use and maintenance of AEDs

If you decide to get an AED for your home, make sure you learn how to use it and maintain it properly. If you don't, an AED will be of little use in an emergency.

Here are some tips for maintaining your home AED:

  • Don't rely only on instructional material provided with the AED. Enroll yourself and your family members in a community education class, such as classes offered by the American Red Cross, to learn how to use your automated external defibrillator properly. This will also allow you to come to the rescue if someone has cardiac arrest in a public place and there's an AED nearby.
  • Take the AED to your doctor's office. It may be helpful to demonstrate how you and your family would use it, to make sure you're using it correctly.
  • Have a family practice run using the AED as you would in an actual emergency. Remember, the AED works only on certain types of cardiac arrest. Know what steps to take if the AED indicates a shock isn't needed, but the person remains unresponsive.
  • Review your AED instructions. Refreshing your memory every three to six months can help you remember how to use the AED in an emergency situation.
  • Store your AED in an easily accessible place. Make sure all family members know where it is.
  • Keep the AED maintained properly, including installation of new batteries as needed.
  • Learn CPR. Take a course to learn the signs of cardiac arrest, how and when to summon emergency responders, and how to perform CPR.
  • Buy the right AED for you. Some AEDs aren't intended for home use, but rather for emergency crews or for installation in public places. Don't be lured by unscrupulous websites or other sellers offering AEDs not intended for home use.

AEDs offer a way to save someone's life, perhaps your own. But they may not be suitable for everyone's home. Before buying one, talk to your doctor and do a little research. And don't forget to learn the basics, like CPR.

Jun. 10, 2011 See more In-depth