What to Expect after Cardiac Arrest
Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart stops
beating all of a sudden. It can be caused by
an irregular, weak heart beat (arrhythmia).
Sometimes the cause is unknown. When the
heart is not working, blood is not being
pumped. Blood carries oxygen to the tissues
and organs of the body. If any part of the
body goes without oxygen for a long time, it
can be damaged or die.
When a cardiac arrest occurs, it is vital to
restore blood flow to the body. The heart
must be restarted. Cardiopulmonary
resuscitation (CPR) and shocking the heart
(defibrillation) need to occur quickly. If
these are done soon enough, damage to the
body and brain can be prevented or reduced.
Cardiac arrest is not the same as a heart
attack. A heart attack is also called a
myocardial infarction (MI). A heart attack
is caused by a blockage in one of the arteries
of the heart. This can damage the heart
muscle. It can lead to cardiac arrest.
Cardiac arrest can occur without having a
What to Expect in the Hospital
After cardiac arrest, the patient may be taken
to the Emergency Department (ED). From
there, the patient will be taken to an
Intensive Care Unit (ICU). There will be a
lot of activity going on in the ICU.
Different types of equipment and medicines
will be used to help support blood pressure,
heart rate and oxygen levels.
Patients are often treated with a ventilator
(breathing machine) and hypothermia.
Hypothermia means the body’s temperature
is below normal. This treatment is used to
help reduce damage to the brain and other
organs. Adults who do not wake up after
their heart is beating on its own again are
cooled to about 33° C (89.6-93.2° F).
Normal body temperature is 37.0° C (98.6°
Patients can be cooled from the inside or
outside. Cooling on the inside is done with
a thin plastic tube called a catheter. It is
placed into a large vein in the groin. Cold
water in this cools the patient quickly. The
water stays on the inside of the catheter. It
does not go into the patient’s vein. Cooling
on the outside is done with ice packs and
The patient will be given medicine for pain
and to stay calm and sleepy. The patient
may also be given medicine that prevents
movement and shivering. People shiver
when their body temperature drops. This is
a natural reflex to try to warm the body.
Since the goal is to keep body temperature
low, medicine may be given to prevent
The patient will be closely monitored. The
nurses will check the vital signs often. They
will keep track of body temperature with a
probe. This probe will be placed in the
bladder or rectum.
The body temperature will be kept low for
about 24 hours. Other tests may be done
during the cooling procedure. Blood will be
drawn for testing. Medicines will be given
The Re-Warming Process
After the cooling period is over, the body
temperature is slowly raised. During re-
warming, the equipment and medicines are
removed when no longer needed. The
nurses will closely monitor the patient’s
vital signs and overall condition. It usually
takes about 8 hours for the re-warming
process to be completed.
If patients wake up, they often do not
remember what happened the day of the
cardiac arrest or even being in the hospital.
The patient may be confused and have
problems remembering some things.
The doctors will discuss further treatments
with you and your family. It is important
that you ask questions when you have them.
The doctors will work with you to determine
the best plan of care during the hospital stay
and after. Each patient has different needs
after a cardiac arrest.
Your health care team may have given you this information as part of your care. If so, please use it and call if you
have any questions. If this information was not given to you as part of your care, please check with your doctor. This
is not medical advice. This is not to be used for diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. Because each
person’s health needs are different, you should talk with your doctor or others on your health care team when using
this information. If you have an emergency, please call 911. Copyright © 10/2016 University of Wisconsin Hospitals
and Clinics Authority. All rights reserved. Produced by the Department of Nursing. HF#6583.