What is ACLS?

What is ACLS? Advanced cardiac life support (ACLS), simply defined, is:

A systematic approach to providing care to victims who have suffered a cardiac arrest or are suffering from several other specific medical emergencies.

Of course, basic life support (BLS) is also a systematic approach that is used for treating cardiac arrest. However, BLS courses only teach CPR, rescue breathing, and relief of choking. These skills are critically important, but they are only the first step of emergency care, and ACLS covers much more. BLS starts the process, but in almost every case of cardiac arrest and for many other medical emergencies, ACLS is needed to resuscitate the patient.

ACLS recognizes that successful management of cardiac arrest involves BLS but also requires many complex skills and lots of specific knowledge. ACLS also prepares you – unlike BLS – to respond to a cardiac arrest caused by non-cardiac conditions and to provide care for several other common medical emergencies. And ACLS organizes all of this information into algorithms, step-by-step problem solving procedures developed from extensive experience and research.

ACLS is a two day course of didactic, classroom learning and hands-on practice including an assessment of the learner’s knowledge and performance during simulated emergencies. Medical professionals are required to be certified in BLS or CPR for Health Care Professionals before taking ACLS. The information you will learn in ACLS can easily be divided into these five categories:

  • Skills: The skills taught in ACLS are a) airway management (e.g., handling obstructions, intubation techniques and equipment, the use of supplemental  oxygen, etc.), b) cardiac pacing equipment and techniques, c) cardioversion and defibrillation, d) IV access (central and peripheral) and invasive techniques (e.g., periocardiocentesis), and e) use of an automated external defibrillator (AED).

  • Arrhythmia recognition and pharmacology: Arrhythmia recognition and pharmacology are important parts of ACLS. Pharmacology includes information on cardiovascular drugs and drugs used for other medical emergencies such as MI and stroke.

  • ACLS in special situations: Cardiac arrest is most often caused by an arrhythmia or another cardiac factor. But cardiac arrest can also be caused by anaphylaxis, avalanche, asthma, cardiac tamponade, drowning, drug overdose, electrocution, hypothermia, and trauma. ACLS teaches you how to recognize and treat those specific emergencies. ACLS also teaches students how to treat cardiac arrest if the victim is pregnant.

  • Medical emergencies: ACLS teaches students how to recognize and treat someone who is having an acute coronary syndrome (e.g., unstable angina, ST-segment elevation MI) or a stroke.

  • Algorithms: The algorithms taught in ACLS take everything that is taught and put it all together. Algorithms cover recognition, assessment, treatments, and alternative approaches to the emergency as the situation evolves.

ACLS is used only by medical professionals and it requires the nurse, physician, etc. to have complex skills and large amounts of specific information.