What Is a Defibrillator & How Does It Work

ProTrainings What Is a Defibrillator & How Does It Work?

You’ve likely seen an automated external defibrillator (AED) used in your favorite medical drama, or maybe you’ve spotted one hanging on the wall of the restaurant you frequent. But have you ever wondered, “What is a defibrillator?” and would you know how to use one in the face of an emergency?

While education and awareness of life-saving protocols like CPR and AED use have helped to bring their existence to the mainstream public, many people don’t actually know what, exactly, a defibrillator is. Further, many are unaware of the impact an AED can have when paired with proper CPR techniques. 

Read on to learn the answers to “What is a defibrillator?,” “How does a defibrillator work?,” and “How can CPR and a defibrillator help save a life?” 

What Is CPR?

CPR stands for cardiopulmonary resuscitation and is used to help treat sudden cardiac arrest. This life-saving technique has its origins dating back to 1956, when Peter Safar and James Elam first invented mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. CPR training programs were eventually developed in 1960 and quickly spread to share this intervention with physicians. 

CPR consists of seven easy steps and two primary actions: chest compressions and rescue breaths. While both actions are essential to a person whose life is in danger, the process has changed over the years. Before 2010, the ABC (airway, breathing, compressions) approach was recommended; after 2010, new research suggested a CAB model was more effective. 

The International Liaison Committee on Resuscitation (ILCOR) updates CPR guidelines every five years by researching and assessing new findings to assure the best practices can be shared across the globe. 

How Can CPR Save a Life?

CPR is effective because it helps maintain the life-sustaining roles that the heart and lungs perform in circulating oxygen-rich blood throughout the body until trained medical aid can step in. 

When it comes to effectively administering CPR, chest compressions must be performed at the correct rate. Songs with between 100 and 120 beats per minute, like “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees or “Dancing Queen” by ABBA, can help you keep the right pace. In some cases, chest compressions may suffice. In others, you may need to find the nearest AED.

So, now that you know what CPR is and why it’s so important to help save a life, what is a defibrillator, and how does it work in conjunction with CPR?

What Is a Defibrillator? 

While the general public is aware that a defibrillator is a tool that shocks people in an emergency, they’re not especially clear on what’s really happening when they hear that popular phrase, “Clear!” So, what is a defibrillator, exactly?

A defibrillator is a device that uses electricity to shock a person’s heart out of an abnormal rhythm and return to a typical sinus rhythm. One of the most commonly available types of defibrillator is an AED, which can be found in public spaces that has a heart with a lightning bolt across it signifying that area an AED storage space. 

AEDs contain two electrical leads that connect the device to two sets of sticky patches — one for adults and one for children — as well as instructions for use (or most 911 dispatchers can provide instruction through the phone). The box will automatically analyze the victim’s heart rhythm and provide appropriately timed shocks to return the heart to normal rhythm.

Once you can answer, “What is a defibrillator?,” we recommend learning how to use one. In certain emergencies, knowing how to perform CPR and use an AED can increase a person’s chances of survival even more than performing CPR alone. 

What Are the Different Types of Defibrillators? 

While all defibrillators do the same general job in providing an electric shock to a heart, each has its own best-use case scenario. Here’s what to know about the three common types and when you might use each one. 

  • Automated external defibrillators. AEDs are the most visible and publicly known types of defibrillators in use today. They’re used solely in emergency situations that arise suddenly and aren’t intended to be used by someone with long-term needs for fibrillation due to cardiac concerns.
  • Implanted cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs). ICDs are suggested by a physician to a patient who has high heart rate concerns that are likely to persist long term. They’re surgically implanted and used to provide electric shocks when needed to slow down a heart rate — unlike pacemakers, which are used to speed up a slow heart rate.
  • Wearable cardioverter defibrillators (WCDs). Also known as a wearable external vest, a WCD is an alternative for those who aren’t eligible for a surgically implanted ICD. WCDs analyze a person’s heart rate to provide electrical shocks when needed and are relatively new to the market (they’ve only been FDA approved since 2002).

The ICD and WCD are prescribed solely by medical professionals, while AEDs are accessible to the general public and are commonly used by both medical professionals and laypeople.

What Are Some Common Defibrillator Concerns?

The most popular question we get beyond “What is a defibrillator?” is “Is this thing safe to use, or am I going to get shocked?”

ProTrainings What Is a Defibrillator & How Does It Work?

While we agree that electricity should be always respected as electrical shock can be a very real risk to your health, there are very minimal risks to using an AED. These devices have been designed with specialty conductive gels and foam insulators that help to prevent an AED’s electrical pulse from arcing from one person to another. 

What Are Some Common Defibrillator Myths?

Beyond the most basic of defibrillator concerns, there are a lot of myths surrounding the question, “What is a defibrillator?,” as well as how they actually work to help save a life. Here are a few of the most prevalent ones:

  • You have to rub the paddles together. People commonly assume that rubbing the paddles together builds a static charge to provide the needed “shocking power.” That said, each AED has and uses its own battery power pack to provide the appropriate amount of electric shock once it has analyzed the victim’s heart rhythm.. 
  • A defibrillator is meant to restart a stopped heart. We’ve all seen our favorite medical drama patient flatline and be revived by an electric shock, but a defibrillator doesn’t restart a stopped heart. It can only correct an improper electrical signal being sent to the heart. 
  • A defibrillator will electrocute you if the victim is wet. While electricity and water certainly don’t mix, being wet doesn’t increase your or the victim’s risk of electrical shock due to the intelligent analysis that AEDs conduct before providing a shock. It’s more likely that the patches won’t stick well enough to give a reading. 
  • If you have to ask, “What is a defibrillator?” you shouldn’t use one. We can certainly understand not wanting to hurt someone by using a tool you’re unfamiliar with, but the safety measures built into modern AEDs help keep victims and rescuers safe. Most AEDs also include step-by-step guides and picture directions.
  • You can stop someone’s heart if you use a defibrillator on a healthy person. As mentioned, one of the key steps in using an AED is the analysis of a person’s heart, which will be interpreted by the AED to only provide an electrical shock if appropriate. A healthy person would not need, and thus not receive, a shock. 
  • You shouldn’t use an AED on a pregnant woman. While there are specific recommendations about providing effective CPR to a pregnant woman, pregnant women face no more of a risk than any other person experiencing a medical emergency. 

The best cure for misinformation is always quality education, and being able to answer, “What is a defibrillator?” is just the first step in building your CPR knowledge. Although you can use an AED without proper training to save a life, we highly suggest that everyone be trained in first aid, CPR, and AED use in case of an emergency. 

Who Should Own an Automated External Defibrillator?

When it comes to owning an AED, some public spaces are required by law to not only have them on site but also ensure they’re easily identifiable (though rules vary by state, city, and even county). But aside from public spaces, who else might benefit from owning an AED?

If you or someone you live with has a family history of cardiac concerns, an AED could be safe to have on hand in case of an emergency. As mentioned above, an AED is not a long-term stand-in where an ICD may be more appropriate, but if risk factors for needing resuscitation are present, it’s always best to be prepared. 

Beyond the home, health-related professions — such as first responders, security guards, and life guards — that are responsible for the public’s well-being could benefit from carrying an AED in the event that they need to step in to help in an emergency. 

How Can I Learn CPR & Defibrillation?

Through our experienced team of instructors, our students are able to learn more about how to properly combine CPR and AED interventions. Our certification courses that cover CPR and AEDs take a look at the considerations behind when to use an AED and how to properly integrate it into effectively providing CPR — but nothing can replace quality training.

Many people avoid taking the step to seek out CPR and AED training because they think the training is going to be expensive, boring, or difficult to fit into their busy schedules. Depending on your lifestyle, remote learning online may be worth looking into for your CPR and AED training. 

Not only does online training help bring quality education to you, but also the brief and bite-sized videos can be reviewed at your own pace so you can retain the knowledge you’d need in an emergency. Whether recertification is a requirement for your career or you want to buff up your resume for a job opportunity, our online training is a perfect option.

We believe that knowing the answers to “What is a defibrillator?” and “How do you perform CPR?” is half the battle. The confidence that comes with certifying your skills is the other half. ProTrainings’ experienced, knowledgeable staff can help to assure that your staff is not only certified for administrative peace of mind but also prepared for every scenario. 
Contact us today to learn more about how ProTrainings can help you make getting your staff CPR certified easier and more efficient.