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What Is the Lazarus Phenomenon?

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 26, 2021

The Lazarus phenomenon is a rare, possibly under-reported condition that happens when someone who seems to be dead shows signs of life again, typically several minutes after health workers stop giving them CPR.

The condition gets its name from the Bible story in which Jesus resurrects Lazarus of Bethany. But we’ve only known about the phenomenon since 1982, when it was first described in medical literature. It was named the Lazarus phenomenon in 1993. Some doctors also call it “autoresuscitation.”

Although many people who experience the Lazarus phenomenon die shortly afterward, one study suggests that almost a third of people make “a good recovery.”

Research suggests that with this phenomenon, a person shows some sign of life within 10 minutes of CPR being stopped. This has led researchers to recommend that health workers closely keep watch on a patient for at least 10 minutes after unsuccessful CPR, rather than declare them dead right away.

A sign of life can include:

Researchers aren’t sure why the Lazarus phenomenon happens, but they have theories. For instance, some think it could be due to a delayed effect of ventilation procedures or drugs given to someone during CPR. They also say some cases may have a link to conditions like having too much potassium in your blood (hyperkalemia) or a heart problem called myocardial stunning. This is when the heart doesn’t get enough blood and doesn’t function correctly even though blood flow is normal.

Some researchers think medical workers don’t always report cases of the Lazarus phenomenon. They say that might be partly due to fear of the legal consequences that could stem from declaring someone dead when they’re not, especially after stopping CPR. It could open a medical team up to being accused of negligence and incompetence, as well as lawsuits.

Why might a health worker accidentally diagnose death too soon? One study points out that “death is not an event, but a process.” That’s why researchers recommend that health workers keep close tabs on a patient for several minutes even after CPR appears to have failed.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine: “The Lazarus phenomenon.”

Scandinavian Journal of Trauma, Resuscitation and Emergency Medicine: “Autoresuscitation (Lazarus phenomenon) after termination of cardiopulmonary resuscitation - a scoping review.”

Case Reports in Critical Care: “When a Dead Patient Is Not Really Dead: Lazarus Phenomenon.”

American Heart Association: “Cardiac Arrest and Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation Outcome Reports.”

National Kidney Foundation: “What Is Hyperkalemia?”

Oxford Academic: “Cardiac stunning in the clinic: the full picture.”

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