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Sudden Cardiac Arrest

Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart suddenly stops pumping blood because of an electrical disturbance in the normal heart rhythm. When your heart doesn’t beat, or is too inactive to pump enough blood, oxygen can’t reach the brain and other vital organs. Cardiac arrest is often fatal for those who do not receive immediate care.

There is hope for those who receive immediate treatment. The heart specialists at the Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Heart & Vascular Center treat and find the cause of cardiac arrest. We offer advanced care to stabilize you after cardiac arrest and prevent future episodes.

What Is Cardiac Arrest?

People who experience cardiac arrest lose consciousness (faint) and stop breathing. They have no pulse or blood pressure. It is different from a heart attack, when blood flow is blocked to a part of the heart. About half of the time, a sudden cardiac arrest is brought on by a heart attack. In other cases, your doctor usually can investigate and find the cause of the cardiac arrest.

Cardiac arrest can cause death within minutes if it isn’t treated right away. These cases are called sudden cardiac death. 

Cardiac arrest is a life-threatening emergency. Call 911 if you think someone’s heart has stopped. 

You can also help by:

Why Choose Barnes-Jewish Hospital for Sudden Cardiac Arrest Care?

Our doctors are respected experts in advanced care for arrhythmias, coronary artery disease, heart valve problems and other causes of cardiac arrest. You receive: 

  • Expert care and second opinions: Specialists at our arrhythmia center developed many advances that are now standard treatments. Doctors from across the United States send patients to us for treatment and second opinions.
  • Highly experienced doctors: Our cardiac electrophysiologists (doctors specializing in heart rhythm disorders) place more than 700 pacemakers and implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs) every year. Read more about cardiac electrophysiology.
  • Specialized care in our cardiac ICU: You receive care in our dedicated cardiac intensive care unit (CICU). We were among the first in the nation to have a special critical care unit for heart patients. Find out more about the cardiac intensive care unit.
  • Innovation: Because we are an academic medical center, we work to develop the next generation of treatments. You may have access to new therapies through clinical trials. Learn more about our innovation.

Risk Factors and Causes of Sudden Cardiac Death

Electrical signals in the heart stimulate it to pump blood steadily through the body. Abnormal heart rhythms called arrhythmias can interfere with your heart’s function.

Cardiac arrest can occur unpredictably in patients with an underlying heart condition, causing sudden cardiac death. When your heart stops completely, doctors may call the attack “sudden cardiac death” even if medics resuscitate you and you survive. 

Some known factors increase the risk for developing the electrical problems that can trigger cardiac arrest. The most common causes include: 

  • arrhythmia and heart rhythm disorders, especially ventricular fibrillation (VFib), which makes the heart’s lower chambers (ventricles) beat rapidly or chaotically
  • coronary artery disease, when clogged arteries in the heart can lead to blood clots that can stop blood flow, causing heart attack and scarring
  • congenital heart disease (problems present at birth) with severe structural heart problems or genetic problems, such as long QT syndrome, that can cause arrhythmias
  • intense physical stress from severe blood loss or lack of oxygen, very low mineral levels or very strenuous activity in people with heart problems
  • structural heart changes, such as an enlarged heart from advanced heart disease or high blood pressure, or hypertrophic cardiomyopathy

Other risk factors for sudden cardiac arrest include:

Cardiac Arrest Screening and Prevention

Screening and diagnosis are crucial in preventing sudden cardiac death. Young athletes should have a thorough heart screening before they participate in sports, especially if they have any family history of sudden cardiac death. We offer screening for athletes of all ages through our sports cardiology program. Learn more about cardiac distress in young athletes.

Diagnosing the Cause of Cardiac Arrest

For people who survive sudden cardiac arrest, finding the cause is essential to prevent it from happening again. Doctors may order:

  • blood tests to check levels of electrolytes that your heart needs for normal heart function and to look for signs of a recent heart attack
  • chest X-ray to take pictures of your heart and check its size and shape
  • coronary catheterization, a minimally invasive procedure that uses a catheter (a long, thin tube) passed through an arm or leg artery to your heart to inject dye that shows blockages in heart arteries (angiography)
  • electrocardiogram (ECG), which records the heart’s rhythm through electrodes on the skin to identify rhythm problems
  • echocardiography (echo), which uses sound waves to produce images of your heart, enabling doctors to check your heart’s pumping capacity (called ejection fraction)
  • nuclear scan, using small amounts of injected radioactive material so your doctors can watch blood as it flows through your heart and lungs
  • stress test, using a treadmill (exercise stress test) or medication that speeds your heart (medication stress test) to understand your heart’s function in carefully controlled conditions

Treatment After Sudden Cardiac Arrest

Sudden cardiac arrest survivors receive care in the hospital. You may get medications to restore your heart’s rhythm or reduce blood clotting to make another episode less likely. 

Once we know the cause of cardiac arrest, your treatment may include: 

Contact Us

To make an appointment with a Washington University arrhythmia specialist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, call 888-993-3291.