Is Sudden Cardiac Arrest Really as Sudden as it Seems?

Lady with possible heart problem

Fans of the popular NBC television series This Is Us got an all-too-close look at sudden cardiac arrest, when beloved family patriarch Jack Pearson suffered what was described as a "widowmaker." Although not a technical term, this type of heart attack usually refers to a major blockage in the left anterior descending (LAD) artery and has a low survival rate.

If your heart stops beating suddenly, the outlook for recovery is dire. Sudden cardiac arrest kills 95 percent of its victims, claiming 325,000 adults a year. But it may not always be as sudden as it seems.

A study presented to the American Heart Association is challenging the notion that cardiac arrest happens abruptly with no warning. You may, in fact, experience symptoms of this fatal condition, in which the heart’s electrical system malfunctions, from one hour to up to four weeks before it strikes.

This finding is noteworthy because in the U.S, only 9.5 percent of people who suffer cardiac arrest outside of a hospital survive. The heart beats dangerously fast, preventing it from pumping blood to the body. Any bit of information that can help people recognize potential danger could save a life.

Look for These Symptoms

The study of 567 men between the ages of 35 and 65 in Portland, OR, showed that more than half experienced symptoms before their cardiac arrest:

  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • dizziness
  • faintness
  • palpitations

Among those with symptoms, about 80 percent occurred between four weeks and one hour before the cardiac arrest.

Of course, most people with these symptoms don’t have a cardiac arrest, but you still should not ignore any symptoms should they occur. See your doctor. Most men in the study had coronary artery disease, a risk factor for cardiac arrest, but just half had been tested for it before their attack.

Even if you link any symptoms you’re experiencing to the potential for a cardiac arrest, the study doesn’t answer all the questions. A doctor’s exam and cardiac testing may not show anything abnormal. In addition, cardiac testing may lead to false positive results that may lead to additional procedures and downstream complications. And the study did not address whether intervening on abnormal test results reduced the risk of subsequent sudden death.

You have the best chance of surviving a cardiac arrest if it occurs in a hospital or if help arrives quickly and you receive cardiopulmonary resuscitation and a defibrillator is available to shock your heart’s electrical system back to a normal rhythm.

You Are at Risk for Cardiac Arrest, If:

  • had a previous heart attack that damaged a large area of your heart.
  • have a weakened heart muscle for other reasons.
  • have an inherited disorder that puts you at risk for heart rhythm disturbances.

Is an ICD For You?

Individuals at high risk for sudden cardiac death, or who have survived a cardiac arrest, may benefit from an implantable cardiac defibrillator (ICD). The device is implanted under the skin with a wire going to the heart, and continually monitors the heart rhythm and delivers a shock to resuscitate someone from sudden cardiac arrest. Your doctor can help you determine if you are at risk for sudden cardiac death, and steps you can take to protect yourself.

author name

Sandeep Bansal, MD

Sandeep Bansal, MD, MPH, is an expert in cardiac electrophysiology with The Heart Group of Lancaster General Health.

Education: A graduate of Yale School of Medicine, Dr. Bansal’s areas of special expertise include heart rhythm disorders, atrial fibrillation, and pacemaker and defibrillator implants.

Call: 717-544-8300

About LG Health Hub

The LG Health Hub features breaking medical news and straightforward advice to help individuals of all ages make healthy choices and reach their wellness goals. The blog puts articles by trusted Lancaster General Health clinical experts, good 'n healthy recipes, videos, patient stories, and health risk assessments at your fingertips.


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