Sudden cardiac arrest, a fatal condition that occurs when the heart unexpectedly stops beating, kills more than 300,000 Americans each year. Only recently, legendary Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher, aka Princess Leia, passed away after suffering a cardiac arrest.
While the medical world has long believed that this catastrophic event comes without warning signs, according to a study published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, a sudden cardiac arrest may not be as sudden as doctors once thought.
“We used to think sudden death happens without warning, or very little warning – a few minutes or an hour,” study co-author Dr. Sumeet Chugh, associate director of the Heart Institute and director of the Heart Rhythm Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said.
He has also commented that only 10 percent of people who have a sudden cardiac arrest survive. This makes it the ultimate heart disease. One which kills within ten minutes.
Early detection saves lives
However, don’t mistake a cardiac arrest for a heart attack because they are not the same. A heart attack is caused by blocked blood vessels that supply the heart with blood. A cardiac arrest, on the other hand, is an electrical change which stops the heart.
Previous studies already reported that people have symptoms very shortly before the cardiac arrest. This study, however, showed that patients might experience warning signs as early as a month in advance, which has never been recorded before, Dr. Chugh said.
He added that this discovery is important, because nearly one-third of those who informed their loved ones or called 911 survived, compared to only six percent among those who did not. These findings may open a new window of opportunity for cardiac arrest prevention and prediction that can stop the problem before it ever happens.
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The study included nearly 840 patients, between the ages of 35 and 65, who experienced a cardiac arrest between 2002 and 2012. The researchers gathered information from survivors, family members, friends, medical records, and emergency response records to determine what symptoms were present up to four weeks before a sudden cardiac arrest.
Don’t ignore the “wake-up call”
The study authors found that as much as half of the patients, men and women, had at least some warning signs in the weeks before their heart suddenly stopped. The symptoms included chest pain and pressure, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, and flu-like sensations such as nausea, back pain, and abdominal pain.
Chest pain was the most common symptom in men, while women were usually struggling with shortness of breath. The study authors also noted that the symptoms often resurfaced 24 hours before people had their cardiac arrest.
Dr. John Day, president of the Heart Rhythm Society and director of Heart Rhythm Services at Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute in Murray, Utah, explained that it is quite challenging to spot these vague signs. Millions of people experience chest pain or flu-like symptoms at some point in their life. Usually, these symptoms have nothing to do with a cardiac arrest.
“It’s not that everyone with chest pain is going to get a cardiac arrest,” stressed Chugh. “It could just be too much exercise or heartburn.”
However, people with risk factors for a heart disease, such as a family history, high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes or another health condition, should not ignore these important warning signs.