Each year 10 to 12 million kids in the U.S. participate in sports. Statistics show that hundreds of children collapse while playing sports every year, and most of those cases involve some type of underlying, previously undiagnosed heart condition.
Sudden cardiac death occurs in one child per 100,000 each year. Ninety percent of these sudden deaths occur immediately post training or during competition with football and basketball having the highest incidence.
If your child plays sports, do you need to take precautions?
Causes of Sudden Cardiac Death
Any young athlete can have a sudden cardiac arrest, when the heart abruptly stops beating. In these incidents, the person may stop breathing, become unresponsive and exhibit no detectable pulse. Unlike a heart attack, where a loss of blood supply causes the heart muscle to become dysfunctional, a sudden cardiac arrest occurs when the heart’s electrical system fails. Impulses to the heart are not able to form an organized beat, which may cause the heart to beat erratically or stop altogether.
“The common causes for sudden cardiac death are thickening of the heart muscle, enlarging of the heart, coronary artery abnormalities and disorders of the heart’s electrical activity,” said Dr. Michael Day, a cardiologist at Children’s Medical Center.
To prevent an unexpected collapse, Dr. Day recommends that every young athlete should undergo a thorough evaluation.
“Before heading to the practice field, a careful history and physical by a primary care doctor focusing on exercise-induced symptoms, family history and cardiac exam and vital signs should be performed as a precautionary measure,” Dr. Day said.
Strenuous physical activity is thought to trigger cardiac episodes. Most collapses occur suddenly, but there can be observable warning signs. Studies show that about half of pediatric patients who succumb to sudden cardiac death had experienced a warning sign.
Children who have any of these conditions should take it a step further and undergo a cardiac evaluation:
- Exercise-induced symptoms such as difficulty breathing during exertion
- Chest pain
- Fast or irregular heartbeats
- Fainting during exertion
- Excessive fatigue
- Resting tachycardia (rapid heart rate in an inactive or sleeping individual)
- Resting hypertension (elevated blood pressure in an inactive or sleeping individual)
- Family history of sudden cardiac death or enlarged or thickened heart in young family members
- New onset of a heart murmur in an adolescent
- Excessive parental/child anxiety or stress
The most comprehensive cardiac evaluations for young athletes include a resting electrocardiogram (ECG), 24-hour ECG monitoring, exercise stress testing, an echocardiogram or combinations of all of these procedures.
But Dr. Day says that most parents should not worry because the conditions which cause sudden cardiac death are rare, especially for children.
In fact, a teen is about 500 times more likely to die in a car accident than while playing sports.
The one for heart health
The Heart Center at Children’s offers Cardiovascular Assessments for children involved in school athletic programs, after-school sports and sports organizations for children who are advised by their pediatrician to schedule a more thorough evaluation. Children’s has a team of electrophysiology specialists who have worked with the state of Texas to evaluate the assessment of student athletes.