Most people who suffer from sudden cardiac arrest (SCA), an affliction where the heart unexpectedly stops beating, die within minutes of their first noticeable symptom. Each year, about 350,000 suffer from sudden cardiac arrest outside of a hospital, and according to data from the American Heart Association, about 90 percent of them die before reaching the ER.
That’s because, once cardiac arrest begins, every second that goes by without medical treatment is pivotal—the patient’s likelihood of survival drops 10 percent each minute, says Sumeet Chugh, MD, director of the Center for Cardiac Arrest Prevention at the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. “If the paramedics get there in 10 minutes, you’re gone,” Chugh told CBS News. “There is no condition known to man where you have the chance of dying within 10 minutes.”
It’s long been believed that cardiac arrest is an ailment that strikes without warning, which is part of what makes it so deadly. But it turns out, the condition may not arrive so unexpectedly after all. Chugh and a team of fellow researchers pinpointed some red flags that could signal cardiac arrest days or even weeks before the event strikes. Read on to find out what they are.
Half of cardiac arrest sufferers experienced symptoms days or even weeks earlier
Findings from a 2015 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggest that sudden cardiac arrest often signals its imminence. The researchers behind the Oregon Sudden Unexpected Death Study, a study of out-of-hospital sudden cardiac arrest cases, looked at patients between the ages of 35 and 65 years old.
They collected information on 839 sudden cardiac arrest sufferers about the four weeks leading up to the event to determine what symptoms, if any, cropped up. They also talked to the patients’ family members and friends, and consulted their medical records and emergency response records.
The researchers found that 51 percent of patients had warning symptoms in those four weeks, and among them, 93 percent saw symptoms recur during the 24-hour period before they suffered cardiac arrest. “This new research suggests for a lot of people, not only do we have four hours but we might even have four weeks [to intervene],” Chugh, chief author of the research, explained to CBS News in 2015.
Early signs of cardiac arrest are intermittent chest pain and labored breathing
Chugh and the researchers behind the study on early signs of cardiac arrest classified symptoms as chest pain (typical or atypical), difficulty breathing, heart palpitations, sudden drop in blood pressure or loss of consciousness, and other (including abdominal pain, nausea or vomiting, back pain).
The most common ones mentioned by patients in the study were intermittent chest pain, with 46.3 percent of symptomatic patients reporting the symptom, and dyspnea, i.e. labored breathing, which 18.1 percent experienced.
Other cardiac arrest patients noticed flu-like symptoms (10 percent) and palpitations (5.6 percent).
81 percent of people ignore early symptoms of cardiac arrest
Chugh told CBS News that these warning signs of sudden cardiac arrest are often ignored. “When these symptoms happen, in about half the people who have SCA, the vast majority don’t act upon the symptoms, and that’s very perplexing,” he said.
In the study, only 19 percent of patients called 911 to report symptoms before their cardiac event, meaning 81 percent did not. Those who did call 911 were more likely to be patients with a history of heart disease or chest pain, and they were also more likely to survive: 32 percent of patients who called 911 survived, compared to just 6 percent of those who did not.
It’s important to know the difference between cardiac arrest and a heart attack
Sudden cardiac arrest is often confused for a heart attack, but while heart attacks can bring about sudden cardiac arrest, they’re not the same thing, Chugh told CBS News. Sudden cardiac arrest is when the heart stops pumping, which causes oxygen-rich blood to stop flowing throughout the body. Heart attacks are when there are blockages in the vessels leading to the heart.
As the Cleveland Clinic explains, the symptoms of a heart attack are usually chest pain, nausea or flu-like symptoms, shortness of breath, stomach pain, sweating, and weakness. For cardiac arrest, they’re typically blue discoloration of the face, difficulty breathing, chest pain, dizziness, and generally feeling unwell.
“If you or your loved one has symptoms, knowing the difference can help you make lifesaving decisions,” cardiologist Nicholas Ruthmann, MD, wrote for the Cleveland Clinic. In the case of a heart attack, you should call 911 or head to the ER, and while you should do the same for cardiac arrest, you should also look for an automated external defibrillator (AED) and start CPR right away.
As Ruthmann explains: “The most important step in preventing a heart attack or SCA is this: If you feel something, say something.”