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Rod Brouhard, EMT  P

First Aid Phraseology: Cardiac Arrest

By January 4, 2010

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Cardiac arrest is what happens when your heart stops pumping blood. Cardiac arrest is pretty misunderstood because it's both a medical condition and a sign of other medical conditions. On top of that, it's the end of every disease. Eventually, the heart always stops in death, and when the heart stops, it's cardiac arrest.

Sudden cardiac arrest comes on quickly -- sometimes without any warning -- and is the most treatable. Sudden cardiac arrest is why we learn CPR. Other forms of cardiac arrest, the kinds that come on after the body is tired and done fighting, aren't very responsive to treatment.

There's no single cause of cardiac arrest. Sometimes the heart starts quivering uselessly and doesn't flow blood. Sometimes it beats too fast for the chambers to fill with blood. In other cases, pressure from other body parts pushes on the heart and doesn't let it expand correctly. Some forms of cardiac arrest are treatable with drugs while other forms respond to electrical shock. For being such a simple concept, cardiac arrest is very complicated to treat.

This is one of those terms the media often gets wrong. First, the media regularly uses the terms cardiac arrest and heart attack interchangeably; they're not the same thing. A heart attack is damage to the heart muscle from lack of blood flow or oxygen, while cardiac arrest is a heart that stopped pumping blood.

Second, the media will often quote medical personnel as saying a person died from cardiac arrest, but medical folks use the term as a catch-all phrase for any person without a pulse. In other words, when we find somebody not breathing and without a pulse, we describe the patient as being in cardiac arrest. It's not a diagnosis, it's simply the state the patient is in at that moment. Left untreated, cardiac arrest won't change. The patient will stay in cardiac arrest forever -- also known as dead.

It's important to point out, however, that cardiac arrest is the most dire of medical conditions. Like I said, left untreated, a patient in cardiac arrest will simply stay in cardiac arrest forever. Even when treated though, the chance of reversing cardiac arrest and getting blood pumping again is pretty slim, especially when it happens anywhere other than in front of a medical professional who has the tools to do something about it.

So the next time you read a report of some celebrity that goes something like "So-and-so, star of some-blockbuster-movie, was found dead of an apparent cardiac arrest in his Beverly Hills mansion last night..." read it a little differently. Try "So-and-so, star of some-blockbuster-movie, was found in cardiac arrest, otherwise known as dead, in his Beverly Hills mansion last night..."

First Aid Phraseology is a weekly look at the common words and phrases used in first aid and emergency medical services.

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January 4, 2010 at 6:00 am
(1) Marty Bicek says:

Nice clear picture of the two words. Now if only the Media will read this…

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