Sudden Cardiac Death

by. Constance Gerstle

What is Sudden Cardiac Death?

Sudden Cardiac Death, also known as SCD, is an ailment in which the heart quickly and unexpectedly stops pumping blood through the veins. When this happens, blood stops flowing to the brain and other vital organs, resulting in death if untreated.

Sudden Cardiac Death is caused by a known or unknown cardiac disease in the afflicted individual.

The cardiac disease can be cardiomyopathy, atrial fibrillation, congenital heart disease, peripheral artery disease, or one of numerous other cardiac diseases.

A family history of premature coronary artery disease, smoking, dyslipidemia, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and a sedentary lifestyle are all factors that contribute to cardiac disease and possible Sudden Cardiac Death.

What Are the Symptoms?

Sudden Cardiac Death happens within minutes, similar to a heart attack. The patient's heart can beat too fast, too slow, or with an irregular rhythm- this is known as an arrhythmia. In extreme cases, these arrhythmias can cause the heart to stop pumping blood to the body. When that happens, these arrhythmias turn into SCA and the patient almost always dies if they are not given immediate treatment. Sudden Cardiac Death is different from a heart attack because it causes the heart to literally stop beating.

Diagnostic Tests

There are tests available to help prevent SCD, such as Imaging Studies (i.e. Chest radiography), Electrocardiography (ECG), Electrophysiology (study of the electrical properties of biological cells and tissues), and Coronary Angiography (a test that uses dye and special x-rays to show the insides of a patient's coronary arteries).

Incidence and Prevelance

It is estimated that more than 7 million lives per year are lost to SCD worldwide, including over 300,000 in the United States.

Prevention is Key

The American Heart Association recommends cardiovascular screening for prevention of SCD. For younger athletes, a complete and careful test of the athlete’s personal and family history, in addition to a physical given by the individual's doctor, is necessary. Screening should be repeated every two years to ensure the patient's safety. Men over 40 and women over 50 need to get exercise stress tests, and individuals with known heart problems should see a cardiologist.

Risk Factors

Patients with coronary artery disease are at risk for Sudden Cardiac Death. Often times,  lifestyle changes can be made to reduce high blood pressure and cholesterol levels and manage problems such as diabetes and weight. Regular exercise and a healthy diet can improve health and negate a risk for SCD.

Treatment Options

Medications

Patients with a history of heart attacks or heart problems may be prescribed a medication to reduce the risk of Sudden Cardiac Death. Common prescriptions such as angiotensin- converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, beta blockers, and calcium channel blockers are often used because they aid in healing a patient's cardiac system.

Interventional Procedures and Surgery

Patients with a pre-existing heart problem may be told by their doctor to get an interventional procedure such as angioplasty, a surgery that repairs blood vessels. Additionally, bypass surgery may be performed to improve blood flow to the heart muscle, reducing the risk of SCD. Procedures such as electrical cardioversion and catheter ablation can be used to counteract abnormalities in the heart.

Treatment Post-Attack

Sudden cardiac arrest is treatable if it is identified early enough. As soon as the afflicted individual begins to show signs, 911 should be called so emergency protocols can commence.   Typically, survival is around 90 percent, as long as the patient is treated within the first minutes. However, this rate decreases by about 10 percent each minute past the five minute benchmark. Emergency procedures include CPR and the use of an Ambulatory External Defibrillator, neither of which will have any long-term effects on the patient if done quickly and correctly. Survivors typically are back to full health not too long after the initial incident.

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