What to Know About Shock

Medically Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on June 30, 2023
3 min read

When you think of shock, you might think of the sudden response people have from surprising emotional stress. The medical disorder shock is actually a condition where your blood is not getting to your organs. This is a life-threatening condition that can cause organ damage and in some cases death. However, there’s more to shock than low blood pressure. 

Your body will go into shock when your blood pressure becomes extremely low. This makes it hard for your cells and organs to get enough blood and oxygen. When this happens, your brain, kidneys, liver, and heart can stop working properly. 

Sepsis is the most common cause of vascular shock. Other causes include: 

  • Carbon monoxide intoxication or not enough oxygen getting to your tissues
  • Prolonged and severe hypotension like late-phase hemorrhagic or cardiogenic shock
  • Anaphylaxis
  • Liver failure
  • Cyanide poisoning‌‌

If the right amount of blood flow isn’t restored, your organs could fail and this could lead to life-threatening conditions. 

There are four types of shock. The first three states of shock are caused by decreased cardiac output. But the fourth type of shock is caused by circulatory problems, which can increase cardiac output in some cases. 

Hypovolemic shock. This type of shock is caused by low blood volume. This means your heart isn’t getting enough blood to pump to the rest of your body. This may be caused by severe bleeding, excessive loss of your body fluids, or not getting enough fluids. 

Cardiogenic shock. This type of shock is rare and needs to be treated immediately. It happens when your heart can’t pump enough blood for your body. It’s most commonly caused by a severe heart attack. But having a severe heart attack doesn’t always cause cardiogenic shock. The survival rate of this type of shock is 50% when treated immediately.

Symptoms of cardiogenic shock include: 

  • Rapid breathing
  • Extreme shortness of breath
  • Sudden, rapid heartbeat known as tachycardia
  • Losing consciousness
  • Weak pulse
  • Low blood pressure or hypotension
  • Sweating
  • Pale skin
  • Cold hands or feet
  • Infrequent or inability to urinate

Obstructive shock. This type of shock happens when your great vessels or your heart gets obstructed. The symptoms can look similar to cardiogenic shock. But it’s different because your aortic flow is obstructed. This is also a very rare type of shock. When you experience this type of shock, your cardiac output will drop excessively, along with your blood pressure. You may experience tachycardia, and be in and out of consciousness.

Distributive shock. This type of shock happens when your blood vessels dilate excessively. This increases how much your blood vessels can carry and decreases your blood pressure. This can reduce the blood flow and oxygen that gets to your organs, which can cause failure if too much time passes. 

Your blood vessels may dilate excessively because: 

  • Serious allergic reaction like anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock
  • Severe bacterial infection
  • Overdose of certain drugs 
  • Poisoning that dilates your blood vessels
  • Injuries to your spinal cord
  • Certain endocrine disorders like Addison disease

Shock can occur from trauma and other incidents that can’t be controlled. However, there are some risk factors for developing certain types of shock. Your risk for experiencing cardiogenic shock as a result of a heart attack is increased if you: 

  • Have a history of heart failure or heart attack
  • Have blockages in your heart's main arteries
  • Have diabetes or high blood pressure
  • Are female
  • Are older

If you have cardiovascular problems like coronary artery disease or heart disease, you should talk to your doctor about your risk of shock. Vascular shock is not a common condition. However, it can have a life-threatening impact. Early diagnosis and treatment can reduce your risk of severe damage to your body.

The most important part of treating shock is treating the initial cause immediately. 

If you’ve experienced trauma and are majorly bleeding, you should seek immediate medical attention. Stopping the bleeding is the most important part. Too much blood loss is a major cause of shock. You’ll need an emergency blood transfusion. 

If your shock is caused by infection, your doctors should give you IV fluids and antibiotics. They’ll need to treat the infection and cause of infection. Stopping septic shock from spreading will help the rest of your body. 

If a heart attack or other heart problem causes your shock, you might need surgery to treat the problem. Your doctor will be working to stabilize your blood pressure and get the blood flowing to your tissues and organs.