Athletes and Heart Problems

While sudden cardiac deaths in young people are thought to be rare, the American Academy of Pediatrics has estimated that 2,000 people under age 25 die from this condition in the U.S. each year. Sudden cardiac arrest or death can strike anyone, but the risk is three times greater in competitive athletes.

Warning signs of those at risk – such as dizziness and shortness of breath – aren’t extremely common, or are often dismissed by athletes used to exerting a lot of energy. Often these deaths occur without obvious warning, however there are possible signs to watch out for. Unexplained fainting during physical activity could be a signal that something is wrong with your heart. Seizures may also occur.

Sudden cardiac arrest in young athletes is most commonly set off by a structural heart defect or a problem with the heart’s electrical circuitry. These issues are not usually found during a routine physical. The most frequent cause is a thickening of the heart muscle, also know as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which has few warning signs.

It is extremely important for athletes especially to get proper heart screenings. Most of the sudden cardiac arrest deaths occur during physical activity, and heart abnormalities may go undetected as they rarely present themselves in unusual signs or symptoms.

All athletes in the U.S. are required to have a physical examination before play, but additional heart testing is not done if a red flag isn’t raised. Though often viewed as inaccurate, electrocardiograms (EKGs) have developed in their technology. Experts say EKGs could detect about two-thirds of the hidden, deadly heart trouble that is aggravated by physical activity.

Combined with personal and family history and cardiac physical examination, EKGs can greatly help in pinpointing athletes at risk for sudden cardiac arrest.

In the midst of a sudden cardiac arrest, giving CPR and properly administering automatic defibrillators (A.E.D.s) can boost the survival rate after sudden cardiac arrest by 60 percent or more.

Reference: Mayo Clinic, “Sudden cardiac arrest”; May 19, 2011

Reference: The New York Times, “Hidden Threats to Young Athletes”; Bill Pennington; May 11, 2013;