'The leading cause of death among young athletes is not head injury or trauma during sports, but sudden cardiac arrest,' says Dr. Jonathan Drezner, a UW Medicine family physician who specializes in sports medicine. 'In fact, on average, every three days in the U.S., a young athlete dies during training or play from sudden cardiac arrest.'
What is sudden cardiac arrest?
'Sudden cardiac arrest occurs when the heart loses its normal rhythm and stops beating. Unless the person is quickly resuscitated, it is fatal,' Drezner says. 'The conditions that put young athletes at risk for sudden cardiac arrest are fairly common.'
Who is at greater risk for sudden cardiac arrest?
As many as one in 250 to one in 300 young athletes have a heart disorder that may increase their risk of sudden cardiac arrest. In some cases, these disorders are inherited and sometimes they are ‘acquired’. For example, viral infections of the heart muscle, called myocarditis, increase the risk for sudden cardiac arrest.
'The majority of people with these heart disorders will never have problems, but an important subset of athletes will. If we identify the athletes with these conditions, we can reduce their risk of sudden cardiac death - sometimes with medication, a procedure or with a device,' Drezner says.
In addition, Drezner says, 'Sudden cardiac arrest in athletes is more common among males; African Americans; and, while we don’t know why, basketball players, regardless of their race or ethnicity.'
What are the warnings signs of sudden cardiac arrest?
'Most athletes who have had a sudden cardiac arrest didn't display symptoms beforehand, and few have physical signs that would be detected with a routine sports physical. So, over the past three years we’ve done electrocardiograms, or EKGs, of nearly 8,000 high school student athletes in the greater Seattle area. Of them, we have identified about 30 students with one of these high-risk heart disorders,' says Drezner.
Signs of sudden cardiac arrest include:
* Fainting or lightheadedness during exercise
* Chest pain/discomfort during exercise
* Heart racing, skipping a beat, palpitations during exercise
* Shortness of breath more than your friends
* Tire more easily than friends
* Unexplained seizure activity
* Decrease in physical activity, new onset of fatigue
* Family history of a relative having a heart problem at a young age, less than 50