What does a defibrillator do?

An AED (Automatic External Defibrillator) determines whether there is an irregular heart rhythm that requires an electric shock. If this is the case, the defibrillator can administer an electric shock in order to restore the heartbeat to a normal rhythm. Immediate intervention with CPR and the use of a defibrillator is crucial in case of a cardiac arrest.

What is a defibrillator?

A defibrillator is a portable device used to administer an electric shock to individuals experiencing cardiac arrest. During cardiac arrest, the heart isn’t completely without a rhythm, it just appears that way. Because the chambers of the heart are not receiving the right signals anymore, the heart can no longer contract and pump blood around the body. The electric shock that a defibrillator gives resets the heart by momentarily stopping it, with the goal of restoring a normal rhythm. In case of a cardiac arrest, administering an electric shock is the only way to induce a normal heartbeat.

A defibrillator will only administer a shock when it is needed. If there is no heart rhythm at all a defibrillator will not be able to shock to restart the heart. If the casualty is unconscious but the heart rhythm is normal, the defibrillator will also refrain from giving a shock.

When do you use a defibrillator?

A defibrillator is only used when the person is in cardiac arrest. Signs of cardiac arrest include loss of responsiveness, abnormal breathing, no pulse and unusual sounds like gasping. However, even if you are not entirely sure if someone is experiencing cardiac arrest, you can always try to use a defibrillator if in doubt. The defibrillator will first perform a test to determine if a shock can be administered.

How does a defibrillator work?
A defibrillator has a set of 2 electrodes, which are typically adhesive pads, that you attach to the casualty's chest. This allows the device to assess the heart rhythm. 30 chest compressions followed by 2 rescue breaths should be given to the casualty. After the assessment, the device instructs you on what to do. A voice prompt will instruct you to continue with CPR or press the button to administer a shock. 

Once the defibrillator is charged and ready, the device delivers a controlled electrical shock to the heart. The electrical shock depolarises the heart muscle cells simultaneously, allowing the heart's natural pacemaker (the sinoatrial node) to regain control and reestablish a normal heart rhythm. After the shock is delivered, resume chest compressions immediately after the shock. The defibrillator continues to monitor the heart rhythm to determine if further intervention is necessary. Operating a defibrillator is not difficult, but it is advisable to practice.

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