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Cardiac Arrest & Youth Sports

By Liberty Hospital

Stories of athletes collapsing and dying on a football field or basketball court because of an unknown heart condition haunt parents of children who play sports. Could that happen to my child? Sadly, the answer is yes, according to the National Athletic Trainers Association: Only one in 10 U.S. student athletes who suffer sudden cardiac arrest survives.

“The most important thing we can promote to our youth these days is being physically active on a daily basis,” said Jared Hanson, ATC/L, Cert. MDT, Head Athletic Trainer at Liberty Hospital Sports Medicine. “That is a big step in helping with their overall heart health. Unfortunately, even when our children take part in being healthy, the unexpected can occur, such as a child suffering from sudden cardiac arrest.” 

A condition called cardiomyopathy is the leading cause of sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) among the young, according to the Children’s Cardiomyopathy Foundation (CFF). Cardiomyopathy is a chronic disease of the heart muscle affecting an estimated 30,000 children in the U.S. One in every 100,000 children is diagnosed each year. There is no known cause in more than 75 percent of pediatric cases.

In the case of a sudden cardiac arrest, the best defense is to be prepared in advance by having an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) nearby, preferably within three minutes of the collapse. According to the CFF, the greatest factor affecting survival after sudden cardiac arrest is the time from arrest to defibrillation. Areas where youth sports are played should have an AED in an easily accessible location. Bystanders can begin CPR and use the AED to save a life while waiting for emergency personnel to arrive on the scene.

“As trained professionals, athletic trainers can be of a great help with those terrible situations,” Hanson said.

Parents can be proactive in preparing for the worst by asking their child’s coaches the following questions:

  1. Is there an AED on site within three minutes of where play is happening?
  2. Are there athletic trainers or physicians immediately available at all practices or games?
  3. Are you trained in CPR and how to use an AED?

Parents also can take their young athlete to a physician for a cardiovascular screening before participation in competitive activities. While this screening cannot guarantee your child won’t suffer a sudden cardiac arrest, it can reveal abnormalities that should be examined by a cardiologist.

“Athletes who have a family history of premature cardiac death or certain cardiac conditions, such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, dilated cardiomyopathy or Long QT Syndrome should consult with their physician prior to participation in competitive athletics,” said Dwarak Soundarraj, M.D., FACC, director of cardiology at Liberty Hospital.

In case of a collapse, the National Athletic Trainers Association recommends that the child is treated like it is sudden cardiac arrest until proven otherwise. In 50 percent of young athletes with sudden cardiac arrest, brief seizure-like activity occurs, but this should not be mistaken for a seizure. Beginning CPR and early use of an AED are critical before transporting the child to a hospital.

While many youth show no signs before a sudden cardiac arrest, there are some signs that parents can watch for in their athlete.

“Awareness to possible cardiac problems is a major factor in preventing more serious events,” Hanson said. “Signs that should not be ignored are chest pain, excessive or new shortness of breath or excessive exertional fatigue with activity. Make sure your child knows that if he or she experiences any of these symptoms to tell you, the coach or the athletic trainer immediately.”



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