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Cardiac Arrest: 10 Terms to Know

Cardiac arrest is recognized as the sudden and total loss of heart function. This condition is life-threatening and requires treatment within the first few minutes after it occurs. If you are concerned that you or loved one is at risk for cardiac arrest, here are 10 terms you need to know.

  1. Electrical system: This term refers to the electrical conduction system of your heart. In normal activity, the cardiac muscle is stimulated by the impulse that is generated by the sinoatrial node of the heart. The muscle then contracts after stimulation, allowing blood to be pumped by the heart. The main cause of cardiac arrest is a malfunction of the heart’s electrical system.
  2. Arrythmia: A disturbance in the hearts electrical system leads to cardiac arrhythmia, which is an irregular heartbeat. Depending on the type of arrhythmia, the heart beats too fast, too slow, or with an abnormal rhythm. An arrhythmia is usually harmless, but some can be serious and lead to cardiac arrest.
  3. Ventricular fibrillation: This is the most life-threatening type of arrhythmia. When your heart’s electrical system becomes disrupted, the lower chambers of your heart contract in a rapid, irregular fashion. The ventricles of your heart will quiver instead of beat. Your heart then stops pumping or pumps very little blood and cardiac arrest occurs.
  4. Dyspnea: The medical term for ‘shortness of breath’, dyspnea is recognized as difficult or labored breathing. It is usually due to heart or lung conditions. These organs are responsible for transporting oxygen to your tissues and removing carbon dioxide. If this process is interfered with, your breathing is affected. Dyspnea is an early warning sign of cardiac arrest.
  5. Angina: This is the medical term for chest pain or discomfort. When your heart muscle doesn’t receive a sufficient amount of blood, you can experience angina. It feels like a pressure or squeezing in your chest and may also be felt in your shoulders, arms, neck, jaw or back. Angina is another early warning sign of cardiac arrest.
  6. Syncope: The medical term for fainting is syncope. Temporary loss of consciousness is an early warning sign of cardiac arrest because not enough blood is reaching the brain due to abnormal function of the heart.
  7. Defibrilator: Cardiac arrest is sudden. If not treated within minutes, the condition can lead to death or permanent brain damage. Using a defibrillator can treat cardiac arrest but must be used immediately. This machine uses electrical shocks to "reset" your heart back to a normal heartbeat. 
  8. Implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD): If you've had cardiac arrest, you are at risk for experiencing it again. Your doctor may treat you with an ICD. This is a battery-powered device that is implanted close to your left collarbone. Your heart rhythm is constantly monitored by the ICD. If a dangerous heartbeat is detected, it sends out low- or high-energy shocks in order to reset your heart to a normal rhythm.
  9. Coronary artery disease: When you have coronary artery disease, blood flow to your heart is reduced due to obstructed arteries, making it harder for your heart to conduct electrical impulses normally. Cardiac arrest most commonly occurs in people who have coronary artery disease.
  10. Heart attack: "Cardiac arrest" and "heart attack" are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same. While cardiac arrest is the sudden and complete loss of heart function, a heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart is blocked. The blockage is due to plaque buildup in an artery, preventing blood from reaching the heart.