CPR: What It Is and How To Do It

CPR: What It Is and How To Do It

Since the high-profile use of CPR to save the lives of public figures in the last few years, more people have been learning how to do it. Footballers Fabrice Muamba and, more recently, Christian Eriksen both received CPR after collapsing on the pitch. Former golfer Bernard Gallagher and British comedian Ted Robbins also received life-saving CPR after collapsing in public. But what is CPR? How do you do it? Can you do CPR on a child or a baby? This article will give you an overview of the correct procedure for all ages to give you the knowledge to potentially save a life!

What Is CPR?

‘CPR’ is an acronym for cardio-pulmonary resuscitation. It is a medical term for attempting to revive the heart and the lungs if they have stopped working. For the general public, it refers to the vital techniques of chest compressions and rescue breaths (also called “mouth-to-mouth”) that can save someone’s life. These important skills are used on someone who has unfortunately suffered a “cardiac arrest”. This is the name for when a person’s heart has stopped beating.

Woman in correct position for chest compressions with arms straight
Image credit: Mayo Foundation

Effective CPR more than doubles chances of survival

This is according to statistics from the British Resus Council. CPR won’t re-start someone’s heart after it has stopped, but it keeps blood and oxygen travelling around their body until help arrives. This increases the likelihood that the person will survive until an emergency medical team can help.

What Causes Cardiac Arrest?

According to the British Heart Foundation (BHF), the most common cause of cardiac arrest is a heart attack. This scenario is usually when the vessels bringing blood to the heart muscle become suddenly blocked, starving the heart of oxygen so it is unable to beat. Other causes of cardiac arrest include changes to the heart muscle (called cardiomyopathy) and recreational drugs. A person suffering from a heart attack is usually awake, whereas a person having a cardiac arrest will be unconscious. However, if a heart attack is not treated, it can cause cardiac arrest.

What Is A Defibrillator?

A defibrillator delivers electric shocks to a person’s heart and can re-start it in some circumstances. Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs) can automatically detect heart rhythms that can be corrected and deliver that high-energy shock if required. In the UK, many parishes, community groups, villages and employers have purchased publicly accessible AEDs for local use. The BHF states that for every minute it takes for a defibrillator to reach a person who needs one, their chances of survival decrease by 10%. This makes it even more crucial to have them close by, and 999 call handlers will know where your nearest one is.

image from defibrillator training
Image credit: The Red Cross defibrillator training

If you’re in the UK and you’d like to discuss purchasing a defibrillator, contact the British Heart Foundation. Their webpage on defibrillators has lots of useful information on using them, including a 2-minute demonstration video.

How To Perform CPR

The two main techniques are rescue breaths and chest compressions. Both are used slightly differently on babies, children and adults due to body size. Only perform CPR, especially rescue breaths if you feel competent to do so. Most recommendations for CPR follow these steps (for up to date guidance, go to the British Heart Foundation):

For a quick overview watch this dramatised video from the Red Cross (warning – it contains footage of chest compressions on a very realistic mannequin)

Step 1: Check if they are unconscious

If it is safe to approach the collapsed person, go to them and shake them by their shoulders. Ask loudly if they are alright. Check for a response. A person in cardiac arrest will be unconscious.

Step 2: Get help!

If other people are around you, ask someone to call the emergency services e.g. 999 in the UK or 911 in the US. You can also ask someone to fetch the public access defibrillator if there is one. If you are alone, call the emergency services yourself before the next step.

If the person is breathing normally, put them in the recovery position by following these NHS instructions. Otherwise, you must now start chest compressions.

Step 3: Chest compressions and rescue breaths

Only start chest compressions with rescue breaths if you feel competent to do so. If you’re less confident, compression-only CPR is best. When starting chest compressions, aim for a rate of about 100-120 per minute – that’s about two per second. You do them slightly different depending on the approximate age of the casualty:

chest compression method for adults babies and children
Image credit: Medical News Today
  • Adults: Place the heel of your hand at the centre of their chest on their breastbone. Put your other hand on the top interlacing your fingers. Keep your arms straight and push down firmly about 5-6 cm then release, allowing the chest to rise again.
  • Children: Place the heel of 1 hand on the centre of their chest and push down 5cm
  • Babies (<1 year): Place 2 fingers in the middle of the chest and push down 4cm
rescue breaths techniques for adults babies and children
Image credit: Medical News Today

For children and babies, start with five rescue breaths before chest compressions, whereas for adults go straight to compressions. Tilt their chin up slightly to open their airway, pinch their nose, and seal their mouth with yours. Blow steadily and firmly for about 2 seconds, watching for the rising of their chest. For babies, put your mouth over their nose and mouth.

For all ages, do two rescue breaths after every 30 chest compressions.

Compression-only CPR (also called hands-only CPR)

This method is best if you are less confident in performing CPR, it also the recommended form of CPR during the coronavirus pandemic. If you are concerned about infection risk, use a piece of material such as clothing or a facemask to cover their nose and mouth. Continue doing chest compressions only at the same rate until help arrives. Please watch this short video below about this ‘Call Push Rescue’ method:

Step 3: Cover their mouth and nose

Step 5: Keep going!

Chest compressions require more force than you often see on TV and in films. They are very tiring! If anyone is helping you, ask them to take over if they feel able to do so. Watch out for signs of life from the casualty such as coughing or their eyes opening.

Sadly, only one in ten people survive having a cardiac arrest outside of a hospital, and so it’s important that more people have the knowledge of these potentially lifesaving techniques. You never know when they might be needed.

Giving CPR can be quite a traumatic and emotional experience, and the British Heart Foundation can offer you further support. If you’re in the UK, you can book a course to learn CPR on a mannequin with St John’s Ambulance. The Red Cross offer similar training in the UK, USA and many other countries globally.



Stef is a medical doctor and public health specialist, with a passion for the prevention of illness. When she isn't working at her day job or trying to keep her plants alive, she often has her nose in a book or goes for a walk with an audiobook for company.

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