The Sobering Truths about Ventricular Fibrillation
A common cause of cardiac arrest, ventricular fibrillation, is a severe condition that requires an almost immediate medical response. The situation is often unpredictable as it can occur with little to no prior medical condition or symptoms. And without proper treatment, it almost always results in sudden cardiac death.
What is Ventricular Fibrillation?
The term ventricular fibrillation applies to an uncontrolled, arrhythmic twitching or convulsing of the muscle fibers or fibrils in the heart. Instead of regular contractions that pump the blood out of the heart. And to the body and the brain, the heart begins to beat rapidly and irregularly.
Controlled by erratic electrical impulses. The fibrils of the heart begin to quiver instead of contract, stopping the heart from beating and preventing the blood from flowing into the body.
When the heart fails to pump oxygen-rich blood to the rest of the body. The brain attempts to preserve its oxygen supply. Within seconds of losing a steady blood supply, the brain shuts down higher functions, and the individual loses consciousness.
If the convulsions in the heart not stopped and the heart fails to begin regularly beating within a matter of minutes. The brain and body will start to die from lack of oxygen.
How Common Is It?
While the cardiac arrest is one of the leading causes of death in industrialized countries, it is hard to determine the cause of each heart attack. The priority of doctors is emergency care and treatment; finding the specific purpose becomes important only if the patient survives.
The uncontrollable electrical impulses that cause the heart to stop beating can only detected by proper equipment, and a large number of the people who die from heart attacks die because they do not receive immediate professional medical attention.
Experts estimate as many as 75% of the 300,000 yearly cardiac arrests in the United States might caused by ventricular fibrillation, but those numbers are estimates only.
Am I at Risk?
Certain traits and lifestyle choices predispose specific individuals toward a higher likelihood of experiencing ventricular fibrillation. It occurs most often in those who have suffered a previous heart attack or have existing heart conditions.
Congenital heart defects or accidental damages to the heart muscle, such as by electrocution, can lead to electrophysiological or chemical instabilities and can cause uncontrolled electrical activity in the heart.
However, even heart-healthy people can be susceptible; the incidence in otherwise healthy people increases in patients between the ages of 45 and 75, occurring most often in older black males.
How Can I Avoid VF?
Adopting a healthy lifestyle can help diminish and decrease the likelihood of heart disease. Excess weight, weak heart muscles, and clogged arteries can put undue stress on a heart, making heart palpitations more likely.
That means getting regular exercise and eating heart-healthy foods while avoiding high cholesterol foods and cigarettes is important. Staying healthy can’t completely prevent arrhythmias or heart attacks, but it does help make them less likely.
Anyone with a history of heart disease should regularly see a doctor stay abreast of any dangers or concerns.
Ventricular fibrillation is a severe condition, like any heart problem. Left unattended to and untreated, VF will lead to brain damage and then death. For any chance of survival, medical assistance must be delivered immediately to anyone with this condition.
The Underlying Ventricular Fibrillation Causes
As an irregular condition of the heart, there are several common ventricular fibrillation causes. Unfortunately, as the term is often fatal, the causes often remain unknown or can only be hypothesized.
However, there are a few ventricular fibrillation causes and conditions that are commonly recurrent with VF patients.
Congenital Heart Disease
Congenital heart diseases or heart defects are problems due to abnormalities in the heart’s development in utero.
While most heart defects claim the life of the patient in infancy, some persist as the patient grows to adulthood. Some of these are known, while others can pass unnoticed until an emergency arises.
Congenital defects may lead to sudden ventricular fibrillation during times of acute stress or for unknown reasons. Any defect in the heart’s structure makes arrhythmia or fibrillation much more likely.
Myocardial ischemia is a term that refers to decreased blood flow to the heart due to coronary artery disease. High cholesterol and buildups of plaque in the arteries prevent the proper amount of blood from flowing into the heart.
As the heart receives less blood, its functioning becomes impaired and erratic, affecting the electrical impulses in the heart, causing them to misfire. These misfires may become chaotic, causing the heart to quiver uncontrollably and prevent the heart from beating properly.
Heart surgery intended to repair defects or detrimental conditions already existing in or around the heart. However, because the heart is such a sensitive organ, surgery may, without causing any other damage, trigger an imbalance in the heart’s electrical or chemical activity.
These imbalances can cause irregular palpitations and stop the heart from beating. Furthermore, the drugs that used pre- or post-surgery may cause damage, resulting in heartbeat arrhythmia.
Any major trauma to the heart can cause it to cease its regular activity. Accidents such as drowning will prevent sufficient oxygen from getting to the heart. Toxins such as drugs or poisons can disrupt the electrical messages telling the heart to continue beating.
Electrocution has also been known to damage an individual’s heart by interfering with the natural electrical impulses that say to a heart to keep beating regularly. Disrupting that regularity can send the heart into electrical chaos, requiring another electrical current to jump-start normal heartbeats.
Unfortunately, most ventricular fibrillation causes are unknown to patients and doctors. Many patients will have no history of heart disease and have experienced no accident, and still, their hearts will begin experiencing arrhythmia and subsequent cardiac arrest.
However, a majority of these patients do exhibit many other risk factors for cardiovascular diseases, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol.
Risky behaviors such as smoking and drug use can further increase the likelihood of ventricular fibrillation and may lead to some of the underlying causes of the condition.
Ventricular Fibrillation Symptoms: How to Identify the Problem
One of the first ventricular fibrillation symptoms is a sudden collapse or loss of consciousness as the brain and muscles no longer receive oxygenated blood. However, there are a handful of ventricular fibrillation symptoms that may precede an episode or collapse by an hour or more.
Rapid Heartbeat or Palpitations
Before the heart goes into full ventricular fibrillation, the fibers of the heart may experience small tremors up to an hour before a full attack. This may cause the heart to flutter, beat irregularly, or increase its speed.
This is the heart’s way of compensating for any deficiencies in its performance due to irregular tremors. Thus a patient may notice his or her heart racing or small irregularities in his or her pulse.
The palpitations may also accompanied by chest pain or tightness in the chest. Medically known as angina pectoris, this chest pain is caused by a severe slow down in blood and oxygen flow from the heart muscle.
Much like any cramped muscle, the heart struggles without oxygenated blood. This typically manifests as a strangled feeling in the chest. This pain can travel to other parts of the body, often in places like the inner left arm and shoulder.
Shortness of Breath
When the body recognizes that the heart is failing to receive the oxygen it needs, it may compensate by trying to take in more oxygen. A patient may find it difficult to catch their breath, and no amount of oxygen seems like enough to breathe comfortably.
Any strenuous physical activity, while the patient’s body is attempting to acquire more oxygen, may lead to over exertion and fainting or dizziness. If even everyday activities such as climbing stairs are suddenly overly strenuous, this may be an indication of ventricular fibrillation.
As oxygenated blood flow hesitates or slows, specific organs may feel the effects. The brain is one of the first to register any hesitations in blood flow as it needs regular and steady oxygenated blood to continue to function normally.
The absence of or decreases in blood flow to the brain can lead to lightheadedness or feelings of disequilibrium or vertigo even when standing still.
If the initial fibrillation is severe enough, the brain may cause a patient to temporarily faint or lose consciousness until regular heartbeat rhythms restored and oxygen flow resumes.
Acute Cardiac Arrest
When the heart’s rhythms completely cease due to ventricular fibrillation, the patient will quickly lose full consciousness and soon after experience acute cardiac arrest.
Unfortunately, this is sometimes the only symptom a patient will experience that indicates there is even a problem. At this point, the patient is experiencing a serious medical emergency and will need professional help almost immediately.
Unfortunately, up until cardiac arrest, the majority of ventricular fibrillation symptoms are general enough to apply to many conditions and, as such, are often dismissed.
If you or someone you know is experiencing any combination of these symptoms, it may be signs of ventricular fibrillation and should report to a physician.
Ventricular Fibrillation Signs and Tests
Ventricular fibrillation can be all but impossible for a layperson to diagnose as the patient will lack a pulse or heartbeat. Even for health care professionals, it can be difficult to diagnose the condition while it is occurring accurately.
Still, these ventricular fibrillation signs and tests are important to diagnose the condition and ensure the right treatment followed.
One of the only tests that can use during an episode of ventricular fibrillation is the electrocardiogram. An electrocardiogram or ECG measures and records the electrical activity in the heart.
An EMT or physician will place electrodes on the patient’s skin, which will monitor waves of electrical impulses. Because it reads the electrical output and not just full beats of the heart, an ECG can quickly tell a physician whether the electrical activity of the heart is regular or chaotic.
If the impulses are irregular and preventing a pulse, the physician will know to use an automatic electrical defibrillator to interrupt these impulses and restore the heart to regular activity.
After a patient has recovered from his or her cardiac arrest, other tests can determine what caused the initial fibrillation and guide a doctor to prescribe follow up treatments.
One of these tests is the echocardiogram. Which uses sound waves to generate a sonogram or a two-dimensional picture of the heart. This will reveal any irregularities in the size or shape of the heart as well as the behavior of blood through the atria and ventricles of the heart.
Any abnormalities in the functioning of the heart’s valves or stoppages in the heart itself will reveal.
A nuclear scan will help identify any lingering blood flow problems in the patient’s heart and elsewhere.
The patient injected with radioactive but relatively benign materials such as thallium. These materials will enter the bloodstream and flow through the body, after which the patient will scan.
Any areas where the blood flows less smoothly will appear as dark spots on the scan. And will help a doctor determine any steps needed to open these areas up and improve healthy blood flow.
Coronary catheterizations or angiograms can also help determine the location of any blockages but without the use of radioactive materials. Angiograms use a liquid dye that will show up on an x-ray.
This dye injected into the heart through a catheter that’s been fed into an artery. Blockages will appear on the x-ray as the dye fails to get through any of the patient’s arteries. The doctor can then choose to perform angioplasty to prop up or clear any blocked arteries.
Angiograms can be painful as the catheter remains in the artery and is often fed a long distance through the body.
Finally, certain specific enzymes and proteins are released into the bloodstream as a result of a heart attack. Creatine phosphokinase and troponin are already present in the blood at low levels.
However, when the heart has been damaged in a heart attack. These enzymes are leaked into the bloodstream leading to observable levels in a blood test. Nurses may take blood regularly following a heart attack to monitor the levels of these enzymes. If the levels rise, further damage may be occurring to the heart due to unnoticed arrhythmia or damage to the heart valves.
The ventricular fibrillation signs and tests above are the best way for doctors to determine when the problem has occurred and decide what to do next. Most of the tests that indicate ventricular fibrillation is not useful until after the patient has recovered.
However, they are important to determine the next steps in treatment and to help prevent any recurrence.
Step by Step Ventricular Fibrillation Treatment
Medical experts advise a person to seek immediate emergency medical attention at the first sign of ventricular fibrillation. Without immediate and specialized ventricular fibrillation treatment, a patient can experience irreversible brain damage or death. So treatment must begin immediately upon the onset of fibrillation.
Call for Help
There is only so much an untrained person can do for someone whose heart has ceased beating. EMTs take only ten seconds to feel for a pulse.
So they never take longer than this before getting emergency treatment for someone unconscious.
A person with ventricular fibrillation loses consciousness within seconds. And his or her pulse may be difficult or impossible to detect. Thus, whoever is closest and able to help should begin CPR immediately.
Medical professionals have recently stated that artificial respiration is not necessary, nor is it as important as chest compressions. What is crucial is that the patient should receive fast and firm chest compressions to force blood from the heart and into the body.
The patient should receive close to two compressions per second, and the process should continue until emergency medical technicians arrive.
Automatic Electric Defibrillator
When the Emergency medical technicians (EMT) arrive, they will attempt to shock the heart into a normal rhythm with an automatic electric defibrillator. This device will pass an electric shock to the heart. Which will delay the riotous electrical signals that are causing the fibers of the heart’s ventricles to quiver.
The shock will cause the heart to stop entirely for a second. Bringing the irregular rhythm of the heart to a halt and allowing regular heartbeats to recommence.
Anyone who has survived ventricular fibrillation and the resulting cardiac arrest faces an increased risk of repeat attacks. Thus, follow-up care and treatment is very important to minimize the risk of recurrence.
Some doctors may suggest an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator, which is placed in the body and acts as a sort of pacemaker. It will recognize the signs of arrhythmia and will emit measured electric shocks to reset the heart to its normal rhythm.
Doctors may also prescribe beta-blockers or other drugs that will lower blood pressure and ease the stress on the heart.
In severe cases where the problem caused by coronary disease or clogged arteries. More invasive ventricular fibrillation treatments might be necessary. Angioplasty and stent placements might be needed to re-inflate and prop up collapsed arteries.
Coronary bypass surgery may be required to completely replace damaged blood vessels with blood vessels from somewhere else in the patient’s body. If the heart is heavily scarred or damaged by its previous arrest, heart transplant surgery may be needed.
Without immediate treatment, ventricular fibrillation is a fatal condition. With prompt treatment, however, it can become a severe but potentially survivable episode. Always call for emergency response when someone is experiencing the signs of ventricular fibrillation.