Without fast treatment, this heart rhythm problem can cause death within minutes. Learn the symptoms of VFib and what actions to take to save a life.
Ventricular fibrillation is a type of irregular heart rhythm (arrhythmia). During ventricular fibrillation, the lower heart chambers contract in a very rapid and uncoordinated manner. As a result, the heart doesn't pump blood to the rest of the body.
Ventricular fibrillation is an emergency that requires immediate medical attention. It's the most frequent cause of sudden cardiac death.
Emergency treatment for ventricular fibrillation includes cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and shocks to the heart with a device called an automated external defibrillator (AED). Medications, implanted devices or surgery may be recommended to prevent episodes of ventricular fibrillation.
Ventricular fibrillation may also be called VFib, V-fib or VF.
Collapse and loss of consciousness are the most common symptoms of ventricular fibrillation.
Before a ventricular fibrillation episode, you may have symptoms of an irregularly fast or erratic heartbeat (arrhythmia). You may have:
Make an appointment with a heart doctor (cardiologist) if you have an unexplained fast or pounding heartbeat.
If you see someone collapse, seek emergency medical help immediately. Follow these steps:
Ventricular fibrillation is caused by either:
Sometimes, the cause of ventricular fibrillation is unknown.
To understand more about how ventricular fibrillation occurs, it may be helpful to know how the heart typically beats.
The typical heart has four chambers — two upper chambers (atria) and two lower chambers (ventricles). Within the upper right chamber of the heart (right atrium) is a group of cells called the sinus node. The sinus node is the heart's natural pacemaker. It produces the signals that start each heartbeat.
These electrical signals move across the atria, causing the heart muscles to squeeze (contract) and pump blood into the ventricles.
Next, the signals arrive at a cluster of cells called the AV node, where they slow down. This slight delay allows the ventricles to fill with blood. When the signals reach the ventricles, the lower heart chambers contract and pump blood to the lungs or to the rest of the body.
In a typical heart, this heart signaling process usually goes smoothly, resulting in a typical resting heart rate of 60 to 100 beats a minute. But in ventricular fibrillation, rapid, irregular electrical signals cause the lower heart chambers to quiver uselessly instead of pumping blood.
In a typical heart rhythm, electrical signals travel from the heart's upper chambers (atria) to the heart's lower chambers (ventricles), causing the ventricles to contract and pump blood. In ventricular fibrillation, rapid, irregular electrical signals cause the ventricles to quiver uselessly instead of pumping blood.
Things that may increase the risk of ventricular fibrillation include:
Without immediate treatment, ventricular fibrillation can cause death within minutes. The condition's rapid, erratic heartbeats cause the heart to abruptly stop pumping blood to the body. Blood pressure drops suddenly and significantly. The longer the body lacks blood, the greater the risk of damage to the brain and other organs.
Ventricular fibrillation is the most frequent cause of sudden cardiac death. The risk of other long-term complications depends on how fast treatment is received.
Ventricular fibrillation is always diagnosed in an emergency situation. If sudden cardiac death has occurred, a pulse check will reveal no pulse.
Tests to diagnose and determine the cause of ventricular fibrillation include:
Ventricular fibrillation requires emergency medical treatment to prevent sudden cardiac death. The goal of emergency treatment is to restore blood flow as quickly as possible to prevent organ and brain damage.
Emergency treatment for ventricular fibrillation includes:
Other treatments for ventricular fibrillation are given to prevent future episodes and reduce the risk of arrhythmia-related symptoms. Treatment for ventricular fibrillation includes medications, medical devices and surgery.
Drugs to control the heart rhythm (anti-arrhythmics) are used for emergency or long-term treatment of ventricular fibrillation. If you're at risk of ventricular fibrillation or sudden cardiac death, your provider may prescribe medications to slow and control your heartbeat.
Surgery or medical procedures to treat ventricular fibrillation include:
Coronary angioplasty and stent placement. If ventricular fibrillation is caused by a heart attack, this procedure may reduce the risk of future episodes of ventricular fibrillation.
The health care provider inserts a long, thin tube (catheter) through an artery, usually in the groin, to a blocked artery in the heart. A balloon on the tip of the catheter briefly inflates to widen the artery. This restores blood flow to the heart. A metal mesh stent may be placed into the artery to help it stay open.
Lifestyle changes that help keep the heart as healthy as possible include the following:
Some irregular heart rhythms (arrhythmias) can be triggered by emotional stress. Taking steps to ease stress and anxiety can help keep the heart healthy. Getting more exercise, practicing mindfulness and connecting with others in support groups are some ways to reduce and manage stress. If you have anxiety or depression, talk to your provider about strategies to help.
Some types of complementary and alternative therapies may help reduce stress, such as:
Getting support from loved ones may also be helpful.