Sudden cardiac arrest: What is it?

More common than most realize, the electrical disruption to the heart muscles carries a 90% fatality rate.

On a highly anticipated Monday Night Football matchup, millions tuned in, but the game quickly took a horrifying and unprecedented turn.

Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin, popping up on his feet after a tackle on Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins, collapsed into unconsciousness in the middle of the field.

Medical personnel were quick to provide care as teammates and competitors looked on in shared concern, watching as the unresponsive Hamlin would have to be revived with CPR after his heart had stopped beating.

The country would wait for answers — some sort of explanation as to why a seemingly healthy young man and professional athlete could suddenly and without warning experience a life-threating emergency.

Transported to a nearby hospital and cared for in the ICU, it would be announced that Hamlin had suffered an attack of sudden cardiac arrest.

What is sudden cardiac arrest?

Sudden cardiac arrest is not the same as a heart attack.

While a heart attack is a disruption in blood flow, sudden cardiac arrest occurs when the electrical impulses that contract the muscles that pump the heart are disrupted.

The heart stops and ceases to pump — a total loss of heart function and breathing, leaving the patient unconscious and unresponsive.

The fatality rate for sudden cardiac arrest is nearly 90 percent. Truly a medical emergency, the use of a defibrillator or CPR is needed immediately.

Signs and warnings

An attack can occur in anyone. And though it’s a sudden attack, there are warning signs that can precede an attack.
  • Chest pain/discomfort
  • Heart palpitations
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Unexplained wheezy breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness/Lightheadedness
  • Fainting/Near-fainting spells

Cases of sudden cardiac arrest are considered common, with more than 200,000 reported every year. And though it can happen to anyone, the majority of patients are over the age of 60.

Sports-related SCA

Ultimately, the cause of sudden cardiac arrest is an abnormal heartbeat. It’s that abnormal beat that disrupts the electrical impulses of the heart muscles.

Not all cases of abnormal heartrate are symptomatic and diagnosed, however, which stresses the importance of physicals and heart checks, especially for younger athletes.

More than 50 percent of sudden cardiac arrest cases affecting patients aged 34 and younger are related to sports, just as it was with the 24-year-old Hamlin.


Don’t skip your check-up

Athlete or not, make an appointment with a McLaren Health Care physician for an annual check-up to discuss (among other things) your heart.

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Heart care at McLaren Health Care

Learn more about the advanced procedures and capabilities of heart care at McLaren Health Care.

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