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Overview of sudden cardiac arrest and sudden cardiac death

Philip J Podrid, MD, FACC
Section Editors
Brian Olshansky, MD
Scott Manaker, MD, PhD
Deputy Editor
Brian C Downey, MD, FACC


Sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) and sudden cardiac death (SCD) refer to the sudden cessation of cardiac activity with hemodynamic collapse, typically due to sustained ventricular tachycardia/ventricular fibrillation. These events mostly occur in patients with structural heart disease (that may not have been previously diagnosed), particularly coronary heart disease. (See "Pathophysiology and etiology of sudden cardiac arrest".)

The event is referred to as SCA (or aborted SCD) if an intervention (eg, defibrillation) or spontaneous reversion restores circulation, and the event is called SCD if the patient dies [1]. However, the use of SCD to describe both fatal and nonfatal cardiac arrest persists by convention.

The specific causes of SCA vary with the population studied and patient age (table 1). SCA most commonly results from hemodynamic collapse due to ventricular fibrillation (VF) in the setting of structural heart disease (waveform 1) [2]. (See "Pathophysiology and etiology of sudden cardiac arrest".)

The outcome following SCA depends upon numerous factors including the underlying cause and the rapidity of resuscitation. (See "Supportive data for advanced cardiac life support in adults with sudden cardiac arrest" and "Prognosis and outcomes following sudden cardiac arrest in adults".)

Most individuals suffering from SCA become unconscious within seconds to minutes as a result of insufficient cerebral blood flow. There are usually no premonitory symptoms. If symptoms are present, they are nonspecific and include chest discomfort, palpitations, shortness of breath, and weakness.

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Literature review current through: Nov 2017. | This topic last updated: Aug 22, 2016.
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