Cardiac arrest: neurologic causes and complications

Jan Bittar MD (

Dr. Bittar of Saint Louis University School of Medicine has no relevant financial relationships to disclose.

Yi Pan MD PhD (

Dr. Pan of St. Louis University has no relevant financial relationships to disclose.

Matthew Lorincz MD PhD, editor. (Dr. Lorincz of the University of Michigan has no relevant financial relationships to disclose.)
Originally released February 12, 1995; last updated February 10, 2020; expires February 10, 2023


In this article, the authors discuss the neurologic sequelae of cardiac arrest. This syndrome, called “post-cardiac arrest syndrome,” comprises anoxic brain injury, post-cardiac arrest myocardial dysfunction, systemic ischemia/reperfusion response, and persistent precipitating pathology. Treatment is optimized with the development of regional systems of care, including goal-directed treatment modalities, targeted temperature management, early coronary angiography, and temporary circulatory support when appropriate, together with comprehensive neurologic assessment and therapy.

Key points


• Cardiac arrest is the primary cause of death in industrialized nations. Brain injury continues to be a leading cause of mortality and morbidity in patients resuscitated after cardiac arrest.


• Though successful resuscitation rate ranges around 40%, survival is still under 10%, with the majority left with neurologic debilitation.


• Cardiac arrest survival depends on numerous strategies, and treatment of "post-resuscitation disease" requires multidisciplinary implementation of timely reperfusion, proper inotropic support and monitoring, glucose control, therapeutic hypothermia, and adequate sedation in the intensive care unit, in place of therapeutic nihilism.


• Neurologic evaluation and prognostication relies on a combination of clinical, laboratory, imaging, and neurophysiological assessments.


• No single method for prognostication holds a specificity of 100%, and bedside neurologic examination still plays a pivotal part in predicting poor outcome.

Historical note and terminology

One of the most significant achievements in physiology during the 17th century was William Harvey's documentation that blood within the human body was under continuous circulation. Yet, initial credit for the recognition of the ultimate dependence of the vital organs on the circulatory system should be given to Galen in the 2nd century AD. The doctrines of Galenic physiology stated that blood was produced in the liver, flowed to the heart to obtain "vital spirits," and subsequently bathed the brain to gain "animal spirits."

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