We have all seen CPR in movies and television shows. Often, it is seen performed in an ER department, by a doctor or EMT.

The scriptwriter, using a little touch of dramatic license, will often have the character demand that the patient “stay with me!” or something similar.

As with most things in the movies, it is made to look more dramatic than it really is. However there is one thing that they often get right about CPR: it really can be a lifesaver.

But what exactly is CPR? How and when should it be deployed and why is it such a lifesaver?

What Does CPR Stand For?

This seems as good a place as any to start! CPR stands for Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation, which is a bit of a mouthful, so the acronym makes sense, doesn’t it?

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What Does CPR Do? 

CPR is a medical procedure that is designed to help the heart to pump blood. Essentially, if the heart has stopped or is not pumping properly, due to either cardiac arrest or a heart attack, then CPR can take over to keep blood and oxygen circulating.

It is essentially an artificial heartbeat that can help to keep a person temporarily alive until the underlying medical issues affecting their heart can be tackled. The truly great thing about CPR is that broadly speaking no specialist equipment is required to perform it.

In many instances it can be helpful to use an Automated External Defibrillator, or AED, if one is available. If it is not available however, CPR can (and often does) keep a person alive until specialist medical help can arrive.

What Is Cardiac Arrest? 

Cardiac arrest happens when the heart stops pumping blood around the body. It is caused when the electrical rhythms that make the heart work become erratic or cease all together.

It usually happens very quickly and with very little warning. A person can be walking down the street one moment and be collapsed to the floor the next.

Whilst there are no warning signs leading up to cardiac arrest, there are several signs once it has struck. If a person is experiencing cardiac arrest they will:

  • Be unconscious
  • Be unresponsive
  • Either won’t be breathing or won’t be breathing normally

It is important to stress that a cardiac arrest is a medical emergency, and you must phone for an emergency ambulance immediately. At the same time, because cardiac arrest stops the circulation of blood, the brain is quickly starved of oxygen.

You must begin CPR straight away to get blood pumping again.

Is a Heart Attack the Same as Cardiac Arrest? 

No. A heart attack is different, however it can lead to cardiac arrest. Unlike the latter, however, there are some symptoms that warn of a heart attack, so it should be easy to tell the difference.

The symptoms will vary between individuals, but broadly speaking the most common symptoms are:

  • Chest pain
  • Pain that spreads down either arm and can also be present in the stomach, back or jaw
  • The patient may also feel sweaty, be light headed, may struggle to breathe or feel short of breath and may feel sick.

It should be noted that it is possible to have a heart attack without any chest pains. If in doubt, always call the emergency services; it’s better to be safe than sorry!

A heart attack is caused by a loss of blood supply to a part of the heart, often due to heart disease or a blocked artery. The heart should continue to pump, but it will have difficulties in doing so. The patient should therefore sit quietly, try to remain calm and await the arrival of EMTs.

You do not need to perform CPR on someone having a heart attack whilst they remain conscious.

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When a Heart Attack Becomes Cardiac Arrest 

Heart attacks can cause cardiac arrest.During a heart attack, the best treatment is to keep the person calm until the ambulance arrives. Talk to them, help them to concentrate on their breathing and give them an adult-strength Aspirin if you have one.

If the person having a heart attack shows the signs of cardiac arrest (becomes unconscious, is unresponsive & stops breathing) then at that stage you must begin CPR.

Who Can Learn CPR? 

Almost anyone can learn CPR and it is a truly beneficial life skill. To highlight this, in the UK where CPR is not taught as a mandatory skill, less then 1 in 10 people survive a cardiac arrest. In Norway, by contrast, where CPR is taught to all children whilst they are in school, the survival rate from cardiac arrest is 1 in 4.

Learning CPR and encouraging more people to do so therefore makes it more likely that should the worst happen, someone will be there with the skills to help early enough to make a huge improvement to the chances of survival.