What’s the difference between a manual defibrillator and an AED?

Defibrillators are now increasingly common – but despite the rise in numbers installed in public places and the undeniable life-saving ability of AEDs, many people still aren’t aware of how they work.

Understanding what defibrillators do and how they operate is incredibly important, as hesitancy when using AEDs can affect their ability to save lives. Swift action (ideally within the first minute of SCA occurring) is crucial in order to increase chances of survival. See our chain of survival guide for more information.

There are two main types of defibrillators available – manual and automatic. Here we explain the difference between the two – including the type you’ll most commonly find for use by the public.

What do defibrillators do?

Defibrillators are medical devices that help to re-start the heart when it stops pumping due to a sudden cardiac arrest. Manual and automatic defibrillators are used externally – internal defibrillators (also known as Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillators or ICDs) are fitted by surgeons to automatically re-start the heart through restoring a normal heartbeat if they detect an electrical issue.

The inner working of defibrillators is complex and difficult to understand, but in simple terms they deliver an electric current to the heart which mimics the heart’s natural electrical function, restoring normal rhythm. The controlled, high energy electric shock (which is adjusted either automatically by the machine itself, or manually by a doctor) is delivered through the patient’s chest via sticky electrode pads. Sometimes multiple uses are needed to properly restart the heartbeat.

When the heart stops due to SCA blood stops pumping around the body to vital organs, including the brain. During the vital seconds and minutes while the heart is stopped damage to the brain and other organs and tissues can quickly occur.

Defibrillators offer a real lifeline for anyone suffering an SCA – when deployed within the first minute they can offer a 90% survival rate – but chances of survival diminish by 10% with every additional minute that passes. Defibrillators offer a swift and reliable response which saves many lives each year.

What is a manual defibrillator? 

Manual defibrillators are specifically designed for use by medical professionals including doctors, paramedics and first responders. Manual defibrillators have advanced capabilities and features that AEDs do not have, as they enable the user to determine the exact issue with the heart and alter the settings of the defibrillator to treat it appropriately.

In certain circumstances when an AED has been used by a member of the public, a paramedic or emergency responder will use a manual defibrillator when they arrive on scene to continue treatment.

You can’t mistake a manual defibrillator for an AED – only AEDs are easily accessible and available in public environments, and usually feature screens and bright colours to make them easily to locate and use.

What is an automatic defibrillator? 

Our automatic defibrillators (AED for short) have been specially designed to be easily used by members of the public – non-medical personnel. They are fitted with intelligent technology that automatically detects electrical issues with the heart through sensors placed on the body, enabling it to deliver appropriate treatment and clear step-by-step instructions for those using it. AEDs are lightweight, portable battery-operated devices so they can easily be transported where they are needed and should be easily accessible to the public.

Many people mistakenly believe that they can make a life-threatening mistake with an AED or that specialist experience is needed to use one – confusing them with manual AEDs. This is one of the most remarkable things about AEDs – they can be used by anyone (even people with no prior experience or first aid training) and are effectively fool-proof. AEDs will not deliver a shock to the heart if one isn’t needed. There are many more facts and misconceptions surrounding AEDs – some of which we’ve covered here.

AEDs all function in the same way, but different models are available designed for specific settings. Some models come with specialist additional features which make them more appropriate for different adverse environments.

Choosing the right AED

Although AEDs all work in the same way (an AED of any kind is better than none at all), it’s important to choose the correct model for the setting in which you plan to use one.

At Martek Lifecare we provide specialised AEDs for a variety of public settings – from schools and educational facilities to sports centres and leisure complexes. Our defibrillators come in a range of sizes and capabilities with a variety of battery capacities available. Certain AEDs are more suited to adverse environments such as marine settings, aircraft and military facilities featuring dust-proofing, full colour screen instructions and award-winning robust design.

Shop our AED bundles here or more tailored advice on AED selection, get in touch with our friendly team today.


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