Complications of CPR and Side Effects


If you’re wondering what the complications of CPR are, we’ll break those down here. CPR, or Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation, is an important life-saving procedure that is undoubtedly essential in many cases. But it is vital that it is done properly in order to restart breathing and the heart or to increase the chances of successful resuscitation by the first responders.

But does CPR involve any risks? Do the benefits outweigh the consequences? And what are the potential complications of CPR? It is imperative to stay informed and cautious, by getting a certification from a good CPR Class.

The Complications of CPR and Cardiac Arrest

CPR is a manual simulation of the heart function once the heart stops beating through chest compressions and artificial ventilation. Its primary purpose is to continue blood circulation throughout the body to ensure every vital organ is supplied with enough oxygen to maintain its normal function.

According to the American Heart Association, immediate CPR doubles or triples the chances of survival after a cardiac arrest. Providing CPR as soon as possible after the heart has stopped is of utmost importance to preserve brain function and to avoid organ failure or possible death. 

Approximately 350,000 to 450,000 people die annually from cardiac arrest in the United States. 

Most cardiac arrests happen outside of a hospital setting and require immediate intervention by starting chest compressions. This means that the person experiencing the cardiac arrest will rely on family, friends, or bystanders for help until medical personnel arrive. This furthermore exaggerates the importance of knowing how to do proper CPR. This helps avoid as many complications as possible of CPR.

If you see someone in your surroundings exhibiting signs of cardiac arrest, it is important to act immediately by:

  • Checking for signs of life by shouting at them and shaking them
  • Determining whether they are breathing
  • Checking their pulse
  • Calling 9-1-1 and shouting for help
  • Starting chest compressions if you are sure there is no breathing and pulse

Chest compressions need to continue at a certain rate and with a designated force until the medical team arrives. However, the resuscitation does not end here; sometimes, a defibrillator is necessary to restore heart function. 

Depending on the patient’s health condition, the duration of the heart failure, and a number of other factors, there can be several complications if the person manages to survive.

Common Complications of CPR

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation is a forceful procedure that may cause a number of Complications of CPR. A lot of untrained people hesitate to perform CPR on a person having a cardiac arrest out of fear that they will do more harm than good.

However, in many cases, when there is no trained professional to respond, even CPR from an untrained person is better than no CPR because the alternative is, almost certainly, death.

Nonetheless, knowing the possible complications that can arise from resuscitation is essential not to inspire fear but caution and improvement.

Some of the common side effects of CPR include:

  • Aspiration and vomiting
  • Broken ribs and sternum
  • Brain damage
  • Internal organ failure
  • Abdominal distension
  • Bruising and soreness
  • Mental and Psychological Distress

Aspiration and Vomiting

Vomiting is not uncommon during CPR. It can be initiated by a number of factors, including the pressure applied on the abdomen as a result of the chest compressions, air entering the stomach as a result of the artificial ventilation, or it can be caused by the same heart problem that caused the cardiac arrest.

When the gastrointestinal fluid from the vomit gets aspirated or inhaled into the lungs, it can cause problems, including a blocked airway and aspiration pneumonitis and pneumonia – a life-threatening lung infection. A good CPR training program can help prevent aspiration injuries and other Complications of CPR. 

Broken Ribs

Chest compressions during cardiopulmonary resuscitation require significant force. This forceful pressure applied to the chest often leads to bone fractures in the ribs and sternum. Broken ribs during CPR are more common in older people who typically have lower bone density and are more susceptible to fractures. 

A 2019 study based on autopsied cases of people who received cardiopulmonary resuscitation shows that out of 88 cases, only 26.7% had rib fractures. Most of the fractures were located in the six upper ribs, most commonly on the second. In addition, 17,4% of the cases also had a sternal fracture, most commonly in the body of the sternum. 

Reports on conventional CPR show that the incidence of rib fractures in adults ranges between 13% and 97%, whereas sternal fractures are between 1% and 43%. 

Skeletal chest injuries after CPR are very rare among infants and toddlers. However, at least one-third of the adults who receive CPR end up with a rib and/or sternal fracture. Regardless of this number, these fractures rarely cause severe problems that can be life-threatening. 

Rare severe complications include lung contusion, pneumothorax or haemothorax, and even other organ lacerations and cardiac tamponade.

Brain Damage

Brain injury is a major risk of cardiac arrest and cardiopulmonary resuscitation. To prevent brain damage, chest compressions need to begin as soon as possible, after the heart stops, to keep supplying the brain with blood and oxygen. Although the brain is only 2% of all body weight, it receives 15% to 20% of the total blood flow to keep its balance. Studies show that consciousness is lost within the first 4 to 10 seconds after the circulation stops, and brain damage can begin to set in after 4 to 6 minutes. 

Failure to deliver timely resuscitation can lead to serious and perhaps irreversible damage and long-term health problems. Shallow chest compressions during CPR can also cause brain injury by failing to push the blood hard enough to reach the brain.

Damage to Internal Organs

Insufficient blood flow to other internal organs can also cause damage and possibly organ failure. Moreover, skeletal fractures from overly forceful chest compressions can cause liver or spleen lacerations or contusions. 

This goes to show that although very rarely, Complications of CPR include significant damage to internal organs.

Abdominal Distension

Abdominal distension can occur when untrained individuals perform CPR as a result of incorrect airway management. Even though they happen very rarely, gastric perforations and abdominal distension from improper CPR are a real threat. This does not mean that untrained people should not attempt to provide CPR; it only emphasizes the importance of adequate CPR training for everyone in the community. 

Bruising and Tissue Injury

The mildest and most common complication related to cardiopulmonary resuscitation is visible bruising and surface tissue injury. Chest compressions involve strong pushing on the chest, often leading to visible trauma, bruising, hematomas, and tissue injury that can cause discomfort and pain. However, this pain is mild and minor compared to bone fractures or organ damage.

Mental and Psychological Distress

Finally, every near-death experience is traumatic and can take a toll on a person’s mental health. Many people who survive cardiopulmonary resuscitation experience functional, psychological, and cognitive deficits. These deficits can be exhibited as post-traumatic stress disorder, memory loss, depression, and anxiety.

Recap of All The Complications of CPR

It’s important to know what the potential complications of CPR are to try to prevent them, or at the very least to be prepared for everything that can happen. This topic concerns everyone because you can never know if you will end up on either side of the situation – as a provider or a recipient of cardiopulmonary resuscitation. For this reason, it is advisable for everyone to stay informed and acquire proper CPR training to be ready to do their part for the community should the need arise.