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Cardiac Arrest

  • Amy Scholten, MPH
Publication Type:


Cardiac Arrest

(Cardiopulmonary Arrest)


Cardiac arrest means that the heart suddenly stops beating. It is due to a problem with the heart's electrical system. It needs emergency treatment. Without fast care, the person can quickly die. This is because blood is not being pumped through the body.

Cardiac arrest is not the same as a heart attack.

Electrical System of the Heart.

Nucleus fact sheet imagehttp://services.epnet.com/getimage.aspx?imageiid=73987398si55551740.jpgsi55551740.jpgNULLjpgsi55551740.jpgNULL\\hgfiler01a\intellect\images\si55551740.jpgNULL19NULL2008-11-072543907398_11981Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.


Cardiac arrest may be caused by:

  • A fast, uneven heart rhythm stopping blood flow—ventricular fibrillation
  • A fast but regular heart rhythm that, if sustained, turns into ventricular fibrillation—ventricular tachycardia
  • Dramatic slowing of the heart rate due to:
    • Failure of its pacemaker OR
    • Severe heart block—a problem with electrical pulses
  • Stopped breathing
  • Choking or drowning
  • Electrocution
  • Hypothermia
  • Sudden loss of blood pressure
  • Problems from eating disorders
  • Unknown causes

Risk Factors

Things that may raise the risk of cardiac arrest are:

  • Heart problems, such as:
  • Other health conditions, such as:
    • Conditions affecting the heart's electrical system
    • Severe metabolic imbalances
    • Lung conditions
    • Having an eating disorder
  • Adverse drug effects
  • Trauma to the chest
  • Extensive blood loss
  • Excessive overexertion in people with heart disorders
  • Illegal drugs such as cocaine


Cardiac arrest can cause:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • No breathing
  • No pulse

Before cardiac arrest, some people feel:

  • Chest pain
  • Weak
  • A pounding feeling in the chest
  • Lightheaded or faint

Some of these symptoms may happen for weeks before the attack.


Cardiac arrest is usually diagnosed after it happens. It is based on the event and ECG that may be taken during treatment. An ECG shows the electrical activity of the heart.


Fast treatment improves the chance of survival. The 4 steps in the cardiac chain of survival are:


Not all cardiac arrest can be prevented. Seek help right away if there are signs of heart attack or signs above. Follow the care plan for heart problems. Let the care team know if you have problems following the plan.





  • Cardiac arrest in adults. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/cardiac-arrest-in-adults.
  • Panchal AR, Bartos JA, et al. Part 3: Adult basic and advanced life support: 2020 American Heart Association guidelines for cardiopulmonary resuscitation and emergency cardiovascular care. Circulation. 2020;142(16_suppl_2):S366-S468.
  • Sudden cardiac arrest. CardioSmart—American College of Cardiology website. Available at: https://www.cardiosmart.org/topics/sudden-cardiac-arrest.
  • What is cardiac arrest? American Heart Association website. Available at: https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/cardiac-arrest/about-cardiac-arrest.
  • What is cardiac arrest? National Heart Lung and Blood Institute website. Available at: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/cardiac-arrest.


  • Mark D. Arredondo, MD
Last Updated:

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.