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What Is an Automated External Defibrillator?

An automated external defibrillator (AED) is a portable device that checks the heart rhythm and can send an electric shock to the heart to try to restore a normal rhythm. AEDs are used to treat sudden cardiac arrest (SCA).

SCA is a condition in which the heart suddenly and unexpectedly stops beating. When this happens, blood stops flowing to the brain and other vital organs.

SCA usually causes death if it's not treated within minutes. In fact, each minute of SCA leads to a 10 percent reduction in survival. Using an AED on a person who is having SCA may save the person's life.

Overview

To understand how AEDs work, it helps to understand how the heart works.

The heart has an internal electrical system that controls the rate and rhythm of the heartbeat. With each heartbeat, an electrical signal spreads from the top of the heart to the bottom. As the signal travels, it causes the heart to contract and pump blood. The process repeats with each new heartbeat.

Problems with the electrical system can cause abnormal heart rhythms called arrhythmias (ah-RITH-me-ahs). During an arrhythmia, the heart can beat too fast, too slow, or with an irregular rhythm. Some arrhythmias can cause the heart to stop pumping blood to the body. These arrhythmias cause SCA.

The most common cause of SCA is an arrhythmia called ventricular fibrillation (v-fib). In v-fib, the ventricles (the heart's lower chambers) don't beat normally. Instead, they quiver very rapidly and irregularly.

Another arrhythmia that can lead to SCA is ventricular tachycardia (TAK-ih-KAR-de-ah). This is a fast, regular beating of the ventricles that may last for only a few seconds or for much longer.

In people who have either of these arrhythmias, an electric shock from an AED can restore the heart's normal rhythm. Doing CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) on someone having SCA also can improve his or her chance of survival.

AEDs are lightweight, battery-operated, portable devices that are easy to use. Each unit comes with instructions, and the device will even give you voice prompts to let you know if and when you should send a shock to the heart.

Learning how to use an AED and taking a CPR course are helpful. However, if trained personnel aren't available, untrained people also can use an AED to help save someone's life.

You often find AEDs in places with large numbers of people, such as shopping malls, golf courses, businesses, airports, airplanes, casinos, convention centers, hotels, sports venues, and schools. You also can purchase a home-use AED.

Outlook

Ninety-five percent of people who have SCA die from it—most within minutes. Rapid treatment of SCA with an AED can be lifesaving.

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December 2, 2011