How many times have you been watching a TV and a character's heart has completely stopped? They take the safety precautions of making sure their heartrate is completely flat before they go and try to save them.
You may have seen those doctors or other paramedics bring out what is called a defibrillator to try and restart the patient's heart. You know the drill: One, two, three, clear!
The doctor then presses the defibrillator against their heart repeatedly in an attempt to get it to start again. And most of the time, after pressing it repeatedly against the patient’s heart, it works! The patient's heart will usually start back up again normally, and everything on the heart monitor will show their heart rate returning to normal almost instantly.
Well, you’d be surprised to know that this doesn’t happen in real life. So, let’s answer the question: “Can a defibrillator restart a stopped heart?”
What Is a Defibrillator?
A defibrillator is designed to conduct an electrical current and then present it as a shock to whatever it makes contact with. Doctors can change the type of current and how strong or weak it is. This electrical shock is supposed to help disrupt certain heart arrhythmias which are called either ventricular tachycardia and ventricular fibrillation. These are known as shockable rhythms. These shockable rhythms only happen while your heart's still beating, which leads us to our main point. Defibrillators aren’t designed to help hearts that have stopped beating!
Ventricular fibrillation happens when the ventricles of the heart become out of synch and instead of pumping blood, they quiver spontaneously. This doesn’t allow the heart to properly contract to pump blood to the rest of the body. These situations are very rare. However, this can happen when someone has a heart attack or heart-related illnesses or disease.
Pulseless Ventricular Tachycardia
Pulseless ventricular tachycardia is when the ventricles start to contract at such a fast pace that they end up not having enough time to take in blood or pump it out. Thus, this prevents the body from properly circulating blood to the rest of the body. This can happen when someone has a panic attack, breathing problems, etc.
How Does Defibrillation Help?
If these above two conditions occur, this is the time to use a defibrillator to help the heart return to normal. The defibrillator works by sending a shock to help disrupt these incorrect heart contractions and then stopping the heart for a very brief amount of time. This allows it to reset and go back to pumping blood at a natural pace, making it return to normal. You could say that a defibrillator can function like the reset button on your computer. If your computer is starting to glitch, you normally have to reset it. This helps it restart and then return to functioning normally.
What Happens to People’s Stopped Hearts?
When a person's heart stops, the heart rate on a monitor will start to flatline. Instead of doctors running to use a defibrillator, they will switch to using a chest compression (CPR) to help pump the lungs and heart full of oxygen so that the blood flow will still provide blood to all of the vital organs.
Once the body stops supplying blood and oxygen to other parts of the body, the body will start to shut down. So, a defibrillator wouldn’t do much good in this situation. Instead of helping the heart pump more blood, it would just end up causing it to stop and attempt to “reset” while the rest of the body started to lack in blood and oxygen.
The bottom line is, don’t believe everything that you see on TV. The truth is, while the medical shows attempt to show you that it is easy to restart a heart, there are a lot of different methods they would try instead of breaking out the defibrillator. They would first use a CPR device to help the patient breathe. If you’ve watched lots of medical or crime shows you’ve probably seen the plastic tube that they use to squeeze air into a person's lungs. This is one of those devices.
On the other hand, medical professionals would normally administer drugs to help the patient's circulation return to normal. If the doctor can't get the heart to restart properly, the patient will begin to suffer and brain damage will start to occur. So, the answer to the question “can a defibrillator restart a stopped heart?” is "no". Instead, it would just cause more issues and potentially give the patient brain damage and start to shut down their vital organs. Thus, it's not a very useful tool in these situations.