Young Athletes and Heart Health

By Matthew Montgomery, DO, MPH, MBA,

Interventional Heart Failure Cardiologist, Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, an RWJBarnabas Health facility

What is sudden cardiac arrest?

Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA), an abrupt loss of heart function in a person who may or may not have previously been diagnosed with heart disease, is a serious medical condition and requires immediate medical attention. SCA can also be caused by an underlying heart disorder, such as abnormal heart rhythms.

An electrical malfunction causes an irregular heartbeat that triggers SCA, also referred to as an arrhythmia. With its pumping action disrupted, the heart cannot pump blood to the brain, lungs, and other body parts. Seconds after SCA, a person loses consciousness and has no pulse. Death occurs within minutes if the victim does not receive treatment.

What are the reasons SCA happens in young athletes and how can it be prevented?

Between 100 and 150 athletes die annually from sudden cardiac arrest, according to the American College of Cardiology. Thought to be the leading cause of death in young athletes, studies show Black male youth are at higher risk of sudden cardiac death than other populations. Disparities in healthcare and a lack of appropriate screenings for underlying heart conditions can cause serious problems for athletes in certain communities, especially young basketball and football players.

One possible cause for SCA in young athletes, commotio cordis, happens when a sudden blunt impact to the chest causes an abnormal heart rhythm in otherwise healthy athletes. Though a rare phenomenon, it has happened when a ball, stick, elbow, or helmet hits the chest wall within a window of about 40 milliseconds. Properly fitting protective equipment can help prevent SCA.

Young athletes must get annual cardiac screenings to help detect any abnormalities. The state of New Jersey and the New Jersey Department of Education require all school athletes to have a full physical by a primary care physician at least once per year including heart screenings. Electrocardiograms (EKGs), not yet a state requirement, can diagnose many conditions other tests cannot.

What to do if a cardiac arrest occurs? What roles do CPR and AEDs play in saving lives?

Someone must immediately administer CPR to keep blood flowing to the brain and other vital organs and use an Automatic External Defibrillator (AED) promptly to restore the heart’s normal rhythm. The longer the deprivat ion of blood flow to the brain, the higher the risk of death or neurological damage. CPR certified individuals at all youth sporting events and an easily accessible working AED in the case of an emergency can help save lives. CPR training classes are available across our area. Visit the Red Cross for more information.

Where can my child receive a cardiac screening?

The Matthew J. Morahan III Health Assessment Center (MJM) for Athletes at RWJBarnabas Health helps families take a proactive approach to their child’s cardiac health providing screenings for children aged 6-18. Included is a baseline EKG and resting blood pressure test with a thorough review of medical history and EKG interpretation by a pediatric cardiologist. Experts recommend screenings every two years. MJM is holding a free screening event on March 25 in West Orange. To learn more or request an appointment, visit https://www.rwjbh.org/treatment-care/athlete-screenings/requestan-appointment/ or call 973-322-7913.

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