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What is defibrillation?


Defibrillation is an emergency treatment for ventricular fibrillation and other life-threatening arrhythmias (abnormal heartbeats). A heart in ventricular fibrillation stops pumping blood to the brain and body. It will cause cardiac arrest and death within a few minutes if not treated immediately. Defibrillation restores a normal heartbeat by shocking the heart with electricity.

Rapid defibrillation saves lies, especially when combined with CPR and intensive medical care. Defibrillation does not reverse the underlying cause of the arrhythmia. It is not successful in all cases, especially with serious, untreated heart disease or certain end-stage diseases.

Types of defibrillators

The types of defibrillators include:

  • Advanced life support (ALS) unit is a device used by healthcare providers in hospitals and ambulances. ALS units also provide vital information to help healthcare providers make decisions and deliver treatments.
  • Automatic external defibrillator (AED) is a user-friendly device that laypersons and emergency medical technicians (EMTs), can operate. AEDs are available in public places, such as schools, shopping malls, and airports. An AED guides users to apply electrodes. It then automatically analyzes the patient’s heart rhythm. AEDs tell users to deliver a shock, if needed, or will deliver the shock automatically.
  • Implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) is implanted in the chest or belly. It is attached to the heart by wires and electrodes and will automatically deliver a shock when needed. Your doctor may recommend an ICD if you are at risk for a life-threatening ventricular arrhythmia.
  • Wearable defibrillator is worn outside the body. Your doctor may recommend this device if you have a short-term risk of a life-threatening arrhythmia, or if you are not a candidate for an implantable device.

Other procedures that may be performed

Defibrillation must be combined with intensive medical care, called advanced cardiac life support (ACLS). ACLS treats the underlying cause of life-threatening ventricular arrhythmias and prevents them from occurring again. ACLS includes:

  • CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and repeat defibrillation as needed
  • Continuous monitoring of vital signs, heart rhythm, and other functions
  • IV medications to suppress more arrhythmias, reduce the heart’s workload, and improve blood pressure, vital signs, and other functions 
  • Oxygen therapy, which is often combined with intubation (placing a breathing tube in the windpipe). The breathing tube is connected to a ventilator to assist or perform breathing for the patient. 
  • Pacing using a temporary pacemaker to correct arrhythmias

Other procedures vary depending on the underlying cause of the life-threatening ventricular arrhythmia. Common procedures include:

  • Coronary angioplasty to widen or open a blocked or narrowed coronary (heart) artery. Blocked or narrowed coronary arteries are a risk for a heart attack.
  • Permanent pacemaker implant to provide continuous or as-needed automatic pacing of the heart rhythm 
Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Sep 12, 2016

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Medical References

  1. Arrhythmia: Cardioverter-Defibrillator: A Treatment for Arrhythmia. American Academy of Family Physicians.
  2. Defibrillation. American Heart Association.
  3. Devices for Arrhythmia. American Heart Association.
  4. Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD). American College of Cardiology.
  5. Types of Arrhythmia. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
  6. Types of Defibrillators. Resuscitation Central.
  7. What is an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator? National Heart Lung and Blood Institute.

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