Ventricular fibrillation (VF) is a dangerous, life-threatening heart rhythm problem. This type of arrhythmia can cause the heart to stop beating abruptly (cardiac arrest) and lead to death within minutes.
Normal electrical impulses
The heart's internal electrical system sends impulses through the heart that control the rhythmical pumping of blood to all vital organs. Abnormal heart rhythms, or arrhythmias, can interfere with this process. Arrhythmias may make the heart to beat too fast, too slow, or in a disorganized manner.
VF is an arrhythmia that triggers the lower chambers of the heart to twitch and quiver. This causes the ventricles to contract in an unsynchronized way and pump little or no blood from the heart to the rest of the body.
Heart attack is the most common cause of VF. Other conditions can also trigger this type of arrhythmia. They include:
Diseases of the heart muscle
Congenital heart conditions
Injury to the heart
Lack of oxygen to the heart
Many people who experience VF have no previous history of heart problems. They may, however, be at higher risk for cardiovascular disease because of tobacco use, diabetes, and/or high blood pressure.
People who suffer VF may experience chest pain, rapid heartbeat, nausea, shortness of breath, and/or dizziness up to an hour before they collapse. Those who experience sudden cardiac arrest stop breathing, are unresponsive, and have no pulse or blood pressure.
VF is a medical emergency. Victims need an electrical shock from an external defibrillator within minutes to restore normal heart rhythm. Many public places have automated external defibrillators (AEDs) for emergency use.
Health care providers may also prescribe medications that can help improve heart function and offset arrhythmias. Those who suffer significant damage to the heart muscle may need to have an implantable cardioverter defibrillator or a procedure such as balloon angioplasty or bypass surgery, depending on the cause of VF.
Victims who remain in a coma after treatment may experience a better recovery if they receive hypothermia therapy to keep their body temperature slightly below normal for several hours.
Those who survive VF and are at risk for future events could benefit from an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, which shocks the heart back into a normal rhythm when necessary.
Taking a course in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is a good way for family members and friends to be proactive about helping VF survivors or loved ones with heart disease. They may also want to consider purchasing an AED for personal use. With proper training, rapid treatment with an AED can be life saving.