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Someone’s in Cardiac Arrest. How Long Should I Provide Bystander CPR?

Imagine you’re a bystander providing CPR to someone in sudden cardiac arrest. As you deliver chest compressions, you wonder how long you should continue.

The victim is unconscious, isn’t breathing, and has no pulse. Someone’s called 911 and emergency responders are on the way. What if you get tired and need a break? What if the person starts breathing again? What if an automated external defibrillator (AED) is used?

Let’s explore these questions, and others you might ask about bystander CPR duration.


What’s the purpose of bystander CPR?

Bystander CPR (when CPR is provided by a non-medical professional) is key to buying precious time for a person in cardiac arrest. The victim’s heart isn’t pumping blood, starving the brain and other vital organs of the oxygen and nutrients they need to function. The victim likely won’t survive – or could suffer serious injury, such as permanent brain damage – if CPR isn’t started quickly.

Bystander CPR is a lifeline you can provide to bridge the critical care gap until emergency responders arrive. Up to 80% of cardiac arrest victims die before reaching the hospital, often because they don’t receive bystander CPR. It’s been shown to double or triple a person’s chance of survival.


How long should I provide bystander CPR?

Generally, bystander CPR should continue with minimal interruption until emergency responders take over.

For this article, we’re addressing Hands-Only CPR, which includes chest compressions – not rescue breaths (mouth-to-mouth). Hands-Only CPR is shown to be highly effective on adults and teens. Organizations such as the American Heart Association encourage Hands-Only CPR for bystanders with little or no CPR training.

When you provide chest compressions, your hands take on the role of the victim’s heart, pushing oxygenated blood through the body. Continuous compressions keep blood circulating and organs in reasonably healthy shape. When compressions stop, blood stops circulating, putting organs at greater risk.


What If I get tired?

Delivering chest compressions – even for a short period – can be exhausting. It’s important to know your limits.

If other bystanders are near, switch off and give yourself a rest. If you’re alone, slow down. It’s better to continue at a slower pace than to stop.

Take breaks if you must, trying to keep them brief; however, stop you if feel you’re putting your health at risk. You won’t be found liable if the person doesn’t survive.


What if I’m using an automated external defibrillator (AED)?

Use of an AED may increase cardiac arrest survival by nearly 75% . The small portable device, designed for easy use, delivers an electric shock that can restore a heart’s normal rhythm.

CPR and an AED deliver a strong one-two punch in cardiac arrest survival. The combination is most effective when multiple bystanders can help. For example, a person can retrieve a nearby AED while another person starts chest compressions. Generally, CPR should begin before and AED is used.

You’ll need to pause chest compressions while the AED analyzes the heart’s rhythm and delivers a shock (if it’s determined one might help). Voice instructions from the device tell you when to stay clear and when it’s safe to resume CPR. Typically, CPR continues for two minutes, then the AED analyzes the heart’s rhythm again and determines whether to deliver another stock.


What if the victim starts breathing or regains consciousness?

Don’t perform CPR on someone who’s breathing or is conscious. Continue to assess the person and see if there’re other ways you can help until emergency responders arrive.

At Starting Hearts, we can provide specific training for making a life-saving difference.

Contact us for more information: [email protected]

Patrick Golden is a healthcare writer based in Massachusetts.