How does a defibrillator work?

Defibrillator? I’ve seen one of those!

No TV medical drama show is complete without a doctor at some point shouting, “Clear!” as he or she applies a defibrillator to a dying patient. More often than not, with a massive convulsion, the patient is shocked with hundreds of joules of electricity and miraculously brought back to life.

In the real world, the devices are a little less dramatic, but they do save countless lives.

How does a defibrillator work?

As the name suggests, the defibrillator is a device that stops fibrillation – the condition where the heart starts to beat erratically, usually during cardiac arrest.

It does this by generating a powerful electrical current – about 300 joules of electrical energy – which is passed through the heart. This has the effect of stopping the uncontrolled trembling and resetting the beating to normal.

There is a common misconception – thanks to those medical dramas – that a defibrillator is used when the heart stops beating entirely, or ‘flat lines’.

Unfortunately, this exaggerates the capabilities of the device.

Rather than restart the heart, the device works to reset the natural pacemaker in our bodies to return the heart to normal function and rhythm.

If the heart has stopped, a defibrillation will do little to restart it, so other techniques such as CPR are applied.

It is even possible to have an automatic defibrillator placed inside the body for patients who have a disorder of the heart known as arrhythmia. These devices, about the size of a pocket watch, administer the appropriate electrical shock if they sense the heart going into fibrillation.

They differ from a pacemaker, however, as they do not assist the heart in maintaining a pace. Rather, they deliver an electrical shock when they sense that the heart is approaching a dangerous heartbeat.

The shock produced by the defibrillator is generated via a built-in battery, which releases a massive pulse of energy. This electrical energy is directed down two wires, each ending at a pad, known as a paddle.

With a defibrillator in a hospital, a doctor applies a conductive gel to maximise the flow of electricity to the patient. The paddles have insulated, plastic handles to prevent the user being shocked along with the patient.

Automatic defibrillators, such as those you might see at a shopping centre, use an adhesive pad, which can be quickly and easily applied by anyone and avoid the need to hold the pads during use.

They can also electronically guide a user through the defibrillation process without the need for a medical professional.

Defibrillator pad positions
Credit: Evacuationchairs, Wikimedia. CC BY-SA 4.0

Where the pads are placed is crucial.

There are two correct positions – the first with the pads above and to the left, and below and to the right of the heart; the second with the paddles placed in front of and behind the heart.

These positions ensure that the electrical current moves around and through the heart.

Please login to favourite this article.