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Preventing Sudden Cardiac Arrest in Young Athletes

Eric McClung, ATC, CSCS, EMT, VATL

Every year, we hear reports of an athlete suffering a sudden cardiac arrest at an athletic practice or game. These stories illustrate how important it is for schools and sports organizations to have automatic electronic defibrillators (AEDs) on hand, as well as trained staff who can quickly respond to a medical emergency. Fortunately, most all schools and many youth sports facilities in our area have certified athletic trainers equipped with AEDs at tournaments, games, and practices. CHKD’s sports medicine program is proud to provide these services to many of our area’s schools systems and other facilities.

These incidents also bring about discussion as to how we can prevent sudden cardiac arrest in young athletes. A thorough pre-participation physical done by the athlete’s primary care physician is an important first step. Some heart conditions can be identified during this physical as your pediatrician listens to your child’s heart and lungs. But, some conditions that can lead to sudden cardiac arrest cannot be detected with a stethoscope. More advanced tests such as electrocardiograms and echocardiograms may help to detect hidden heart conditions; however, it is currently an area of active debate as to how beneficial and effective these tests are in screening for possible causes of sudden cardiac death in athletes.

A recently publicized study in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at the incidence of cardiac arrest occurring during participation in sports. The study was conducted using data from the Toronto, Ontario metropolitan area. Out of 3,825 cardiac arrests among 12-45 year olds, there were only sixteen cases that fit the criteria, and it was determined that only three of those cases were caused by an issue that may have been caught by advanced screening procedures.

The study also noted that 1 in 300 athletes could potentially be removed from athletics because of abnormalities shown in their screenings. “These conditions are common enough that the number of kids who could be removed from competitive sports because of a pre-existing condition greatly exceeds the number who are truly at risk of ever experiencing sudden cardiac arrest,” says Dr. Paul Dorian, lead author of the study. “For the majority of people, the benefits of participating in competitive sports far outweigh any risk.”

Since there is currently not a reliable, less exclusionary means of prevention, the ability to quickly respond to a cardiac arrest when it does occur is the best course. The good news is that these events are rare, and we know that the greatest contributing factor to survival is immediate CPR and early defibrillation. So, make sure that your school or sports facility is equipped with an AED and CPR-trained staff. CHKD’s sports medicine program is proud to provide these services to many of our area’s schools systems and other facilities.

And, consider taking the extra step of becoming CPR/AED certified yourself. One day, you may be the one who makes a difference in someone’s life.

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About CHKD Sports Medicine

About CHKD Sports Medicine  CHKD's sports medicine program offers the most comprehensive care for your young athlete. From diagnosis and treatment to customized rehabilitation plans, we specialize in physical therapy and injury prevention programs for active children and teens. Our team is composed of pediatric orthopedic surgeons, sports medicine specialists, physician assistants, certified athletic trainers and pediatric sports medicine physical therapists.