What Happens After Cardiac Arrest? Here’s What You Should Know

  • Cardiac arrest is a medical emergency that occurs when the heart suddenly stops beating or pumping blood to the body.

  • Treatment for cardiac arrest includes promptly calling 911 and performing CPR chest compressions until emergency services arrive.

  • The recovery process after cardiac arrest varies depending on how severely you were affected by it. You’ll typically be admitted to the hospital for a few weeks to recover, undergo testing, and follow a rehabilitation program.

  • Cardiac arrest can cause long-term complications, including neurological damage, physical impairments, and mental health issues. Always speak to your doctor about the most appropriate way to manage these issues

Experiencing cardiac arrest can be an extremely traumatic event with lasting effects on your life — especially if you don’t know what comes next.

Most cardiac arrest survivors will face challenges and frustrations on their road to recovery. Knowing what to expect can help you prepare for what lies ahead.

What is Sudden Cardiac Arrest?

Cardiac arrest is a life-threatening event that occurs when the heart suddenly stops beating due to an incorrect signal.

It can also happen when the heart beats so fast that it stops pumping blood.

This issue usually happens when rapid, abnormal rhythms — also known as arrhythmias — alter the normal rhythm of your heartbeat.

Causes and symptoms of cardiac arrest

Various cardiovascular conditions may be responsible for cardiac arrest, including:

  • Heart arrhythmias, such as ventricular fibrillation

  • Coronary artery disease (CAD)

  • Heart attack

  • Cardiomyopathies (disease of the heart muscle)

  • Congenital heart disease

  • Heart valve disease

  • Severe or untreated myocarditis

  • Electrolyte imbalances

  • Substance use

  • Kidney disease

  • Infectious diseases

If an individual suffers cardiac arrest, they may experience a sudden and intense onset of the following symptoms:

  • Sudden collapse

  • No detectable pulse

  • Unresponsiveness

  • Pale or bluish skin

Prompt action should be taken if a person displays any of these symptoms, including dialing 911 and administering hands-only CPR.

How is Cardiac Arrest Treated?

Immediate treatment needs to be administered when cardiac arrests happen to increase the chances of survival.

Research shows that cardiac arrest survival can be as high as 90% if treatment measures are implemented within the first minute of the event.

If action isn’t taken, a person can suffer from sudden cardiac death, which is a fatal condition.

Here’s how to take immediate action in case of an emergency:

  1. Call 911 immediately

  2. Start hands-only CPR by using chest compressions to replace the heart’s pumping action. Compressions should be administered at a rate of 100 to 120 beats per minute and should not be stopped until professional help arrives or the individual shows signs of life.

  3. If you are in a public place, use an automated external defibrillator (AED) if one is available. This will give the person the best possible chance of survival.

Upon arrival, emergency personnel will use CPR to restart the heart if it is not beating and there are no electrical signals (asystole).

If the individual shows signs of life and regains consciousness, antiarrhythmics will be administered intravenously to stabilize the heart’s electrical rhythm.

The person will likely be taken to the hospital to recover from the effects of cardiac arrest and begin treatment to prevent future heart problems.

What is the Recovery Process Like after Cardiac Arrest?

Immediate recovery

The first step in recovering after you survive cardiac arrest involves being admitted to a coronary care or intensive care unit (ICU).

This allows doctors to monitor your condition while administering medication to treat your heart. You may also be put in an induced coma and kept asleep to allow your body to recover.

Mid-term recovery

Once you’ve regained your strength, your doctor will likely conduct tests to determine the cause of your cardiac arrest.

This allows them to recommend more appropriate medications and treatment options, including:

  • Pacemakers

  • Implantable cardioverter-defibrillators (ICD

  • Various drugs for heart conditions, such as ACE inhibitors, statins, and beta-blockers

These treatments can reduce the risk of experiencing recurrent episodes of cardiac arrest and will help improve your quality of life.

Your doctor may also recommend cardiac rehabilitation to improve your heart health and overall well-being.

Long-term recovery

Your recovery time depends on factors like the cause of your cardiac arrest and how long it took for your heart to beat independently again.

Recovery could take anywhere from several weeks to a few months or longer.

Extended recovery is often necessary if rehabilitation for certain skills — such as relearning to walk — is required.

You should speak to your doctor about the estimated recovery time and when you’ll be able to resume normal activities, such as driving and going to work.

Key Point: What is the Life Expectancy after Cardiac Arrest?

The long-term survival rates after cardiac arrest are difficult to predict due to several influencing factors.

However, research indicates that around 15% of cardiac survivors who are discharged from the ICU live for five years. Of those individuals, around 60% survive for 10 years or longer.

Keep in mind that these studies aren’t indicative of all cardiac arrest cases, and it’s recommended to speak to your doctor about your life expectancy following a cardiac event.

Are There Any Long-Term Complications of Cardiac Arrest?

It’s important to remember that cardiac arrest causes your heart to stop beating — potentially for several minutes — which can have a significant impact on other organs in the body.

Because of the intense stress the body is under during cardiac arrest, you might develop long-term complications and difficulties.

Neurological issues

The most common neurological issue that can develop as a result of cardiac arrest is known as a hypoxic-ischemic brain injury.

This injury occurs when the brain is deprived of oxygen due to the heart’s failure to supply blood carrying vital nutrients.

A hypoxic-ischemic brain injury is a major cause of disability or even death after someone is resuscitated.

Other neurological issues that can result from cardiac arrest include cerebral edema and vasospasm.

These conditions can develop when chemical changes during cardiac arrest cause the brain to swell.

Brain swelling can cause significant narrowing of blood vessels, further disrupting blood flow to the brain.

Physical impairments

Physical impairments after cardiac arrest usually result from neurological damage sustained during the event.

These disabilities can significantly impact your quality of life and may affect your ability to return to work or live independently.

The most common physical issues survivors face include:

  • Mobility limitations

  • Difficulty completing basic activities

  • Impaired balance and motor coordination

  • General weakness

  • Tremors

  • Communication difficulties

In most cases, and depending on the extent of the neurological damage, physical rehabilitation can reverse these impairments and improve your functional status over time.

Psychological factors

Survivors of most cardiac arrests tend to develop mental health issues, including symptoms of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

These conditions are often associated with a reduced quality of life and challenges in maintaining a normal lifestyle.

However, with proper psychological help — such as regular therapy sessions — these conditions can be effectively treated and managed.

Can Cardiac Arrest Be Prevented?

Although it may not be possible to prevent cardiac arrest completely, there are various strategies you can implement to reduce your risk of developing this condition.

These strategies may include:

  • Following a heart-healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins

  • Quitting smoking

  • Limiting alcohol use

  • Being physically active

  • Maintaining a healthy weight

  • Managing conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity

  • Practicing stress management

  • Taking your heart medication as prescribed

  • Addressing any risk factors promptly

It’s also important to schedule and attend regular health screenings, even if you’re not at risk for cardiac arrest.

High-risk groups include:

  • Personal or family history of heart disease

  • Previous heart attack or cardiac arrest

  • History of heart failure

  • Arrhythmias

  • Age (men over 45 and women over 55 are at higher risk)

  • Gender (men generally have a higher risk)

  • Illicit drug use and excessive alcohol consumption

  • Medical conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and diabetes

  • Lack of physical activity

Where Can You Learn More About Managing Conditions Like Cardiac Arrest?

If you’re concerned about your symptoms or want to know more about life after cardiac arrest, LifeMD is here to help.

We can connect you to a team of medical professionals who can provide information and guidance on managing your heart health while avoiding long-term complications.

Make an appointment today to get started.

Jeffrey Vacek, DNP, FNP-C

Jeffrey graduated from Missouri State University with his Doctor of Nursing Practice and a specialization in Family Nurse Practitioner. He has practiced in primary care for the past seven years, with a focus on telehealth the past three years. Outside of work, Jeffrey keeps busy playing disc golf and pickleball with his wife and five children. He is also an avid reader, often finishing two to three books per week.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency.

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