Ventricular fibrillation

Definition

Ventricular fibrillation (VF) is a severely abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia) that is life threatening.

Causes

The heart pumps blood to the lungs, brain, and other organs. If the heartbeat is interrupted, even for a few seconds, it can lead to fainting (syncope) or cardiac arrest.

Fibrillation is an uncontrolled twitching or quivering of muscle fibers (fibrils). When it occurs in the lower chambers of the heart, it is called VF. During VF, blood is not pumped from the heart. Sudden cardiac death results.

The most common cause of VF is a heart attack. However, VF can occur whenever the heart muscle does not get enough oxygen. Conditions that can lead to VF include:

Most people with VF have no history of heart disease. However, they often have heart disease risk factors, such as smoking, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

Symptoms

A person who has a VF episode can suddenly collapse or become unconscious. This happens because the brain and muscles are not receiving blood from the heart.

The following symptoms may occur within minutes to 1 hour before the collapse:

Exams and Tests

A cardiac monitor will show a very disorganized ("chaotic") heart rhythm.

Tests will be done to look for the cause of the VF.

Treatment

VF is a medical emergency. It must be treated immediately to save a person's life.

Call for emergency help (such as 911) if a person who is having a VF episode collapses at home or becomes unconscious.

VF is treated by delivering a quick electric shock through the chest. It is done using a device called an external defibrillator. The electric shock can immediately restore the heartbeat to a normal rhythm, and should be done as quickly as possible. Many public places now have these machines.

Medicines may be given to control the heartbeat and heart function.

An implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) is a device that can be implanted in the chest wall of people who are at risk for this serious rhythm disorder The ICD detects the dangerous heart rhythm and quickly sends a shock to correct it. It is a good idea for family members and friends of people who have had VF and heart disease to take a CPR course. CPR courses are available through the American Red Cross, hospitals, or the American Heart Association.

Outlook (Prognosis)

VF will lead to death within a few minutes unless it is treated quickly and properly. Even then, long-term survival for people who live through a VF attack outside of the hospital is low.

Possible Complications

People who have survived VF may be in a coma or have long-term brain or other organ damage.


Review Date: 5/16/2018
Reviewed By: Michael A. Chen, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, Harborview Medical Center, University of Washington Medical School, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

This information should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. © 1997- 2007 A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.