Chapter 17: Nervous System Emergencies - American CPR Care Association

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Chapter 17: Nervous System Emergencies

Defined :

The relationship between the brain and its central nervous system is very interrelated with the functioning of each and every other part of the body. The nervous system controls: the five senses (sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch), the ability to think and reason, voluntary and involuntary functions, and regulates blood flow and blood pressure.

For this reason, head and spinal injuries may have a very significant affect on another part of the body. Prompt and timely First Aid given to nervous system emergencies is very crucial.

Causes :

There are many different causes, mild or severe, that can lead to a nervous system emergency. Some of these conditions and injuries include:

Degenerative diseases, such as: Parkinsons, Alzheimers, Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
Mental health problems, such as: depression, anxiety disorders
Organ failure, such as: heart failure
Problems with blood supply
Trauma to the head or spinal cord

Signs and Symptoms :

Chest discomfort: squeezing, pain, pressure
Discomfort in: arms, back, neck, jaw, abdomen
Fluid or blood drainage from the nose or ears
Nausea or vomiting
Numbness, weakness, tingling
Paralysis (inability to move one part or any part of the body)
Shortness of breath: nausea, sweating, dizziness
Slurred speech, loss of speech, trouble speaking

Common Emergency Example(s) :

Heart Attack:
A heart attack develops when blood flow is blocked and a segment of your heart muscle / tissue
dies or is damaged.

Most commonly you can tell if someone is having a heart attack if they complain of chest pain.
They may also experience uncomfortable pressure, nausea, shortness of breath, and/or discomfort in the arms, back,
neck, jaw and abdomen.


A seizure is a sudden attack, which involves abnormal electrical activity in the brain. A person may experience mild shakes or more severe convulsions (rapid and uncontrollable shaking). Most seizures will stop within a few minutes of onset.

Seizures can be caused by head injuries, poisons, missed medications, low blood sugar or a medical condition called epilepsy.

A stroke usually occurs very suddenly when there is a problem with the blood supply to the brain. The supply gets blocked or a blood vessel within the brain ruptures.

Some specific signs and symptoms include: sudden and severe headache, dizziness, loss of consciousness or balance, slurred speech, drooling, inability to understand words, weakness, and/or paralysis on one side of the body.

Spinal / Head Injuries:
The spinal cord primarily transmits signals between the brain and the rest of the body, and controls reflexes. Injuries to the spine can cause a person to lose the ability to move parts of the body.

A person may have a spinal or head injury if he/she was struck in the head/spine, fell, was assaulted, experienced a sports injury, or was in a car / motor vehicle accident (without a helmet).

The person may suddenly get sleepy, experience nausea, vomit, get a headache, have trouble walking and talking or not respond all together.

First Aid Actions / Treatment :

  1. Assess the scene and check for your safety.
  2. Activate EMS (Call 9-1-1) and follow the dispatcher instructions.
  3. Get an AED or First Aid kit if available.
  4. If person is experiencing:
    • Heart attack: if the person is not allergic to aspirin, is not bleeding and is not showing signs of a stroke, give him/her an aspirin (1 regular dose or 2 low-dose)
    • Seizure: remove any object which may hurt the person; do not restrain the person; place in recovery position if the person is vomiting and you don’t suspect a head, neck or back injury
    • Stroke: note the time the stroke first begin and place person in recovery position, if the person is unconscious and you don’t suspect a head, neck or back injury
    • Spinal / Head Injury: do not move the person unless the scene becomes unsafe; place in recovery position (minimize movement of head and neck) if the person begins to vomit
  5. If necessary, provide CPR. If you do not know how, give Hands-Only CPR.

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