Sudden cardiac arrest, or SCA, is often confused with a heart attack, although the two are completely separate conditions. Unfortunately, SCA causes over 350,000 deaths each year, but with a better understanding of the warning signs and how to respond and prevent SCA, it is possible to save more lives.

What is Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA)?

SCA is exactly as it sounds – the heart stops beating suddenly with no warning. When the heart stops beating, blood no longer flows to vital organs, including the brain. The heartbeat must be restored within a matter of minutes by electrical shock or the person will die. This condition is different than a heart attack, as an attack is typically caused by a blockage within a blood vessel that interrupts blood flow, resulting in the death of a specific heart muscle area. Both SCA and heart attacks are serious and may result in death, but the suddenness and lack of prior symptoms of SCA is what makes it so dangerous.

Causes of SCA

Almost any heart condition can lead to SCA, although other causes may pose a risk, as well. Essentially, the majority of SCA cases are due to a malfunction of the heart’s “electrical system.” The person will most likely have an abnormal heart rhythm, such as ventricular tachycardia, ventricular fibrillation, or bradycardia. Other causes include:

  • Heart Tissue Scarring: Scarring usually stems from a prior heart attack, but may come from other conditions, and may result in arrhythmia.
  • Thickened Heart Muscle (cardiomyopathy): This condition may be caused by high blood pressure, heart valve disease, or other condition. Those who also have heart failure are more at risk of SCA.
  • Certain Heart Medications: Some medications may cause a dangerous arrhythmia, even those being used to treat a present arrhythmia. Other prescriptions that cause significant changes in levels of potassium and magnesium may also lead to an arrhythmia that could result in SCA.
  • Electrical Abnormalities: Children and young adults who have Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome or Long QT syndrome are at higher risk of SCA.
  • Abnormalities of Blood Vessels: Although rare, if congenital blood vessel abnormalities are present in the coronary arteries or aorta, the person is at risk of SCA. This is often triggered when adrenaline is released during intense physical activity.
  • Recreational Drug Use: Even in individuals who are otherwise healthy, the use of some recreational drugs increase the risk of SCA.

Signs and Treatment for SCA

An individual who is experiencing SCA will have a sudden loss of responsiveness – no movement, speaking, blinking, etc. – and is either not breathing or appears to be gasping for air. If you notice this behavior, it is essential to seek and provide emergency medical assistance right away. Call or instruct someone nearby to call 911 immediately and try to locate the nearest automated external defibrillator (AED).

Check how the person is breathing. If they aren’t breathing or are only gasping, begin CPR. According to the American Heart Association, the proper way to perform CPR is by pushing down “at least two inches at a rate of 100 to 120 pushes a minute in the center of the chest, allowing the chest to come back up to its normal position after each push.” If you have an AED or someone has brought one to you, use it right away. Continue to perform CPR until the person begins breathing or moving on his own, or until a paramedic or medical professional arrives.

Survival of SCA is essentially up to how quickly the problem was addressed. Many who survive will have some level of brain injury, but the severity depends on conditions present prior to the SCA, during the SCA, and after resuscitation.

If you believe you may have a form of arrhythmia or other heart condition that could put you at higher risk of SCA, talk with a doctor right away. At Decatur County Memorial Hospital, our cardiology department provides outstanding quality care to patients with innovative treatments for various heart conditions. For more information or to schedule an appointment, contact us today.