Protect young athletes’ hearts

They are young. They are athletic. Yet every year, hundreds of them suddenly die while either playing or practicing sports.

They are victims of sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). In a parent’s worst nightmare, a son or daughter could become one of the young American athletes who dies from SCA.

“Common in males, SCA can result from 19 heart disorders,” says Christopher Snyder, MD, Chief of Pediatric Cardiology at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital. “A combination of intense exercise, excitement and some other event, like a slight blow to the chest, can result in the heart stopping to beat – and it is often fatal.”

SCA does not affect the vast majority of young athletes. But those long odds are little comfort when your son or daughter’s life is at stake.

According to Dr. Snyder, there are a number of precautions that you and your child’s coaches can take to help avoid a tragedy.

  • Watch for warning signs. Chest pain that radiates to the left arm, shortness of breath and fainting can be signs of SCA. Often dismissed as a normal effect of exertion, they can indicate a more serious condition.
  • Review your family history. SCA has a genetic aspect. “A record of sudden, premature death in the family is a warning,” says Dr. Snyder. Studies have shown that as many as half of SCA victims had either a physical symptom or a family history of the condition.
  • Get a test. A medical professional should administer the American Heart Association’s screening test for young athletes. The test consists of a number of questions and a thorough physical exam.
  • Consider an electrocardiogram (EKG). If there is any suspicion of cardiac disease, an EKG can reveal many of the conditions that cause SCA.
  • Ensure that there is an automated external defibrillator (AED) at athletic events and practices. An AED can shock the heart back into action. Dr. Snyder says, “Used the right way, an AED can increase the odds of survival.”
  • Learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). At games and practices, a bystander who knows CPR can come to the aid of a stricken athlete.
  • Have an emergency action plan. All athletic events should have one in place and be prepared to implement it.
Christopher Snyder

Chief, Pediatric Cardiology,
UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital
Associate Professor, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine

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