• Cardiology

Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart suddenly or unexpectedly stops pumping. It may not be something you expect to happen in children, but it can.

Each year, there are stories of seemingly healthy kids and teens experiencing sudden cardiac arrest during exercise or even during sleep. Though heart-related deaths from cardiac arrest occur much less frequently in young people, it is devastating to families, schools and communities when a child dies unexpectedly.

February is Heart Month. This is a great time to increase awareness and understanding of this heart problem that can affect anyone at any age.

We spoke with Andrew L. Papez, MD, a pediatric cardiologist at Phoenix Children’s Center for Heart Care, who answers four frequently asked questions about pediatric cardiac arrest.

What is cardiac arrest?

Cardiac arrest occurs when there is a sudden loss of heart function in a person with or without heart disease. When the heart isn’t beating, it can’t pump blood to the rest of the body.

Many different things can lead to cardiac arrest, but the most common reason is the heart has gone into an arrhythmia, a problem with the heart’s electrical system.

“Usually, your heart beats in a controlled fashion, with the brain and rest of the body all giving signals to the heart on how fast to beat,” Dr. Papez said. “Most commonly in cardiac arrest, something happens where the heart begins to race too fast. Your heart can’t generate proper blood pressure or meet the demands of the body, so you pass out.”

Several things can lead to an arrhythmia. The most common reasons for this in children include:

  • Abnormalities with the heart muscle itself: The heart muscle may become either abnormally thick or abnormally thin, which makes it difficult to pump blood effectively, such as with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy or dilated cardiomyopathy.
  • Congenital abnormalities with the coronary arteries.
  • Underlying abnormalities with the electrical system of the heart.
  • Inflammation of the heart from another illness, or myocarditis.
  • Chest trauma: This is a rare occurrence but does happen a little more often during baseball, hockey and other sports with projectiles like sticks, pucks and balls.

Is cardiac arrest the same as a heart attack?

Often, these two terms are used interchangeably, but they are not the same.

“A heart attack is a broad term, often applied to cases where blood flow to the heart itself is blocked by disease in the coronary arteries,” Dr. Papez said. “Cardiac arrest is when a person’s heart stops pumping blood around their body. A cardiac arrest may happen due to a heart attack, but there are many other causes for it as well.”

Heart attack victims typically experience symptoms such as chest tightness or pain and remain unconscious.

Can I use CPR on a child who has a cardiac arrest?

Yes, knowing CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and how to use an AED (automated external defibrillator) isn’t just a skill for adults. It’s important to teach children and teens so they can also save a life if needed.

When someone has a sudden cardiac arrest and a bystander starts CPR and defibrillation early, odds of survival drastically increase.

“The biggest tip for bystanders is to not be afraid to step in and help,” Dr. Papez said. “Early CPR after a cardiac arrest will more than double the person’s likelihood of survival.”

Courses are offered regularly through the American Red Cross and the American Heart Association.

What can I do to prevent cardiac arrest?

As a parent or guardian, there are several steps you can take to help prevent cardiac arrest. The first starts with regular well-child visits.

“Wellness visits can help screen for many conditions that might put your child at risk, such as an undiagnosed heart problem, as well as provide an opportunity to discuss any worries or concerns you might have about your child.”

Pre-participation screenings and sports physicals are also important tools in preventing cardiac arrest. All Arizona Interscholastic Association or AIA-accredited sports require a cardiac screening form, which asks a series of questions about the participant and family history.

“These are excellent screening questions that can help find the needle in the haystack,” Dr. Papez said. “Take these forms seriously and know your family history.”

If there is a sibling or other relative who has experienced cardiac arrest, your family should be evaluated to ensure you don’t have similar risk factors.

Phoenix Children’s Center for Heart Care is here to help.

No matter a patient's age, the cardiology team at Phoenix Children’s is equipped to diagnose and treat the full range of heart conditions, from fetal diagnoses to newborn, childhood and adulthood heart care.

As one of the leading pediatric cardiology programs in the U.S., the Center for Heart Care includes cardiologists and cardiac surgeons, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and other providers. The team also partners with specialists across departments when a patient has other health or genetic issues.

If you have questions or concerns about your child, click here to contact the Phoenix Children's Center for Heart Care.