Diagnosis

If you survive sudden cardiac arrest, your doctor will try to learn what caused it to help prevent future episodes. Tests your doctor may recommend include:

Electrocardiogram (ECG)

During an ECG, sensors (electrodes) that can detect the electrical activity of your heart are attached to your chest and sometimes to your limbs. An ECG can reveal disturbances in heart rhythm or detect abnormal electrical patterns, such as a prolonged QT interval, that increase your risk of sudden death.

Blood tests

A sample of your blood might be tested to check the levels of potassium, magnesium, hormones and other chemicals that can affect your heart's ability to function. Other blood tests can detect recent heart injury and heart attacks.

Imaging tests

These might include:

  • Chest X-ray. This allows your doctor to check the size and shape of your heart and its blood vessels. It might also show whether you have heart failure.
  • Echocardiogram. This test uses sound waves to produce an image of your heart. It can help identify whether an area of your heart has been damaged by a heart attack and isn't pumping hard enough or whether there are problems with your heart valves.

    This test and others, including a nuclear scan, MRI, CT scan and cardiac catheterization, can all determine your heart's pumping capacity by measuring what's called the ejection fraction, one of the most important predictors of your risk of sudden cardiac arrest. Ejection fraction refers to the percentage of blood that's pumped out of a filled ventricle with each heartbeat.

    A normal ejection fraction is 50 to 70 percent. An ejection fraction of less than 40 percent increases your risk of sudden cardiac arrest.

  • Nuclear scan. This test, usually done with a stress test, helps identify blood flow problems to your heart. Tiny amounts of radioactive material, such as thallium, are injected into your bloodstream. Special cameras can detect the radioactive material as it flows through your heart and lungs.
  • Coronary catheterization (angiogram). During this procedure, a liquid dye is injected into the arteries of your heart through a long, thin tube (catheter) that's advanced through an artery, usually in your arm, to arteries in your heart. As the dye fills your arteries, the arteries become visible on X-ray and videotape, revealing areas of blockage.

    While the catheter is in position, your doctor may treat a blockage by opening the artery (angioplasty) and inserting a stent to hold the artery open.

Treatment

Sudden cardiac arrest requires immediate action for survival.

CPR

Immediate CPR is crucial for treating sudden cardiac arrest. By maintaining a flow of oxygen-rich blood to the body's vital organs, CPR can provide a vital link until more-advanced emergency care is available.

If you don't know CPR and someone collapses unconscious near you, call 911 or emergency medical help. Then, if the person isn't breathing normally, begin pushing hard and fast on the person's chest — at a rate of 100 to 120 compressions a minute, allowing the chest to fully rise between compressions. Do this until an automated external defibrillator (AED) becomes available or emergency personnel arrive.

Defibrillation

Advanced care for ventricular fibrillation, a type of arrhythmia that can cause sudden cardiac arrest, generally includes delivery of an electrical shock through the chest wall to the heart. The procedure, called defibrillation, momentarily stops the heart and the chaotic rhythm. This often allows the normal heart rhythm to resume.

Defibrillators are programmed to recognize ventricular fibrillation and send a shock only when it's appropriate. These portable defibrillators are increasingly available in public places, including airports, shopping malls, casinos, health clubs, and community and senior citizen centers.

At the emergency room

Once you arrive in the emergency room, the medical staff will work to stabilize your condition and treat a possible heart attack, heart failure or electrolyte imbalances. You might be given medications to stabilize your heart rhythm.

Long-term treatment

After you recover, your doctor will discuss with you or your family what other tests might help determine the cause of the cardiac arrest. Your doctor will also discuss preventive treatment options with you to reduce your risk of another cardiac arrest.

Treatments might include:

  • Drugs. Doctors use various anti-arrhythmic drugs for emergency or long-term treatment of arrhythmias or potential arrhythmia complications. A class of medications called beta blockers is commonly used in people at risk of sudden cardiac arrest. As a side effect, an anti-arrhythmia drug might cause your arrhythmia to occur more frequently — or even cause a new arrhythmia.

    Other possible drugs that can be used to treat the condition that led to the arrhythmia include angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and calcium channel blockers.

  • Implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD). After your condition stabilizes, your doctor is likely to recommend an ICD, a battery-powered unit that's put into your body near your left collarbone. One or more electrode-tipped wires from the ICD run through veins to your heart.

    The ICD constantly monitors your heart rhythm. If it detects a rhythm that's too slow, it paces your heart as a pacemaker would. If it detects a dangerous heart rhythm change, it sends out low- or high-energy shocks to reset your heart to a normal rhythm.

  • Coronary angioplasty. This procedure opens blocked coronary arteries, letting blood flow more freely to your heart, which might reduce your risk of serious arrhythmia. A long, thin tube (catheter) is passed through an artery, usually in your leg, to a blocked artery in your heart. This catheter is equipped with a special balloon tip that briefly inflates to open the blocked artery.

    At the same time, a metal mesh stent might be inserted into the artery to keep it open long term, restoring blood flow to your heart. Coronary angioplasty can be done at the same time as a coronary catheterization (angiogram), a procedure that doctors do to locate narrowed arteries to the heart.

  • Coronary bypass surgery. Also called coronary artery bypass grafting, bypass surgery involves sewing veins or arteries in place at a site beyond a blocked or narrowed coronary artery (bypassing the narrowed section), restoring blood flow to your heart. This can improve the blood supply to your heart and reduce the frequency of racing heartbeats.

  • Radiofrequency catheter ablation. This procedure can be used to block a single abnormal electrical pathway. One or more catheters are threaded through your blood vessels to inside your heart. They're positioned along electrical pathways identified by your doctor as causing your arrhythmia.

    Electrodes at the catheter tips are heated with radiofrequency energy. This destroys (ablates) a small spot of heart tissue and creates an electrical block along the pathway that's causing your arrhythmia to stop your arrhythmia.

  • Corrective heart surgery. If you have a congenital heart deformity, a faulty valve or diseased heart muscle tissue due to cardiomyopathy, surgery to correct the abnormality might improve your heart rate and blood flow, reducing your risk of fatal arrhythmias.

Clinical trials

Explore Mayo Clinic studies testing new treatments, interventions and tests as a means to prevent, detect, treat or manage this disease.

Lifestyle and home remedies

To live a heart-healthy lifestyle:

  • Don't smoke.
  • Achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
  • If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation — no more than one drink a day for women and men older than 65 and no more than two drinks a day for younger men.
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet.
  • Stay physically active.
  • Manage stress.

Medication

If you already have heart disease or conditions that make you more vulnerable to heart disease, your doctor might recommend that you take steps to improve your health, such as taking medications for high cholesterol or managing diabetes.

If you have a certain heart conditions that put you at risk of sudden cardiac arrest, your doctor might recommend anti-arrhythmic drugs.

Devices

If you have a known risk of cardiac arrest, your doctor might recommend an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD). You might consider purchasing an automated external defibrillator (AED) for home use. Discuss this with your doctor. AEDs can be expensive and aren't always covered by health insurance.

Training

If you live with someone who is at risk of sudden cardiac arrest, it's important that you be trained in CPR. The American Red Cross and other organizations offer courses in CPR and defibrillator use.

Being trained will help not only your loved one, but your training might help others. The more people know how to respond to a cardiac emergency, the greater the survival rate for sudden cardiac arrest is likely to be.

Sudden cardiac arrest care at Mayo Clinic

Dec. 18, 2018
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