We’ve all seen that mind racing drama on television, where someone is brought back from the brink of death only to have the doctor tell them just how close they were to being gone as their heart actually stopped throughout the procedure. While this may sound like something that’s reserved for Hollywood, the American Heart Association reports that approximately 209,000 patients are treated each year for in-hospital cardiac arrests, with just over 25% of those surviving to be discharged from the hospital and return to their daily lives. Another 350,000 will experience cardiac arrest outside of the hospital with a survival rate of approximately 12%.
Sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) is defined as “the stopping of the heart due to a disruption of the heart’s electrical impulses, which results in inadequate oxygenated blood flow to the brain and vital organs.” In short, the heart stops beating starving the body of the oxygen it requires in order to function. This will lead to the patient losing consciousness, also known as ‘sudden cardiac death.’
While the prognosis for SCA isn’t good, with most patients who suffer it not surviving the experience, those who do are given a second chance at life. But what really happens if your heart actually stops?
It’s important to note that an SCA differs from a heart attack, although the two events may happen in conjunction with one another. During a heart attack something is actually blocking the flow of blood within the body, however, the heart continues to pump trying to push blood past it. With an SCA, the blood may have clear passage, however, the heart itself is stopped by an electrical disturbance, ceasing to pump blood for a period of time.
There are often a number of warnings and symptoms in the moments before the heart stops, for those that are familiar with what to watch for. Those who experience SCA often report feeling an arrhythmia in the seconds leading up to the heart stopping. This may feel as though your heartbeat is uneven or chaotic. You may also notice that your heart rate suddenly speeds up or slows down, noticeably different from your normal resting heart rate.
With the proper care and medical attention, those who suffer SCA can survive this. However, the sooner that you receive care the better. If you are noticing an abnormal heart activity, or if you are generally feeling ‘off,’ then it is important to seek medical care as quickly as possible. If the brain is denied the necessary oxygen for too long this will lead to brain damage, or even leave the patient brain dead. By restarting the heart quickly enough to restore the transfer of oxygen to the brain, we can avoid these serious side effects. While there are extenuating circumstances, such as the slowing down of the body due to extreme cold, the average adult can survive approximately 4-6 minutes of no blood flow before the brain cells begin to die off, and by 10 minutes the patient is expected to suffer long-term effects.