Sufficiently strong defibrillation shocks will cause temporary or permanent damage to the heart. Weak defibrillation shocks do not cause any damage to the heart but also do not defibrillate. A relevant and practical question is what range of shock energies is most likely to defibrillate while not causing damage to the heart. This question is most difficult to answer in the pre-hospital defibrillation setting where the patients' size and shape vary, placement of the defibrillation patches vary, and the etiology of their arrhythmia varies. Unlike internal defibrillators, which are tested at implantation, efficacy of an external defibrillator is determined only once, when it is most needed. This review discusses shock damage and dysfunction caused by monophasic waveforms as well as biphasic waveforms. Evidence is presented suggesting that for perfused hearts, the threshold for damage is well above any shock size delivered clinically. For non-perfused hearts, both in humans and animals, evidence is presented that monophasic shocks of up to 5 J/ kg do not cause any more cardiac damage/dysfunction than that associated with smaller shocks and that much of this damage is caused by the ischemic period itself rather than the shock. Although many patients can be defibrillated with 150 J (2.2 J/kg) biphasic shocks, some patients may require biphasic shocks up to 360 J (5 J/kg) to be defibrillated. Studies still need to be performed comparing the efficacy and damaging effects of 360 J biphasic shocks to 150 J biphasic shocks. Until those studies are completed, it seems reasonable to use the same 360 J (5 J/kg) energy limit for biphasic shocks as for monophasic shocks. © 2003 Elsevier Ireland Ltd. All rights reserved.