The occasional news of a young athlete’s sudden death from cardiac arrest is always shocking. How do parents recognize heart problems & act to prevent a tragedy?

The condition, risks and treatment

In sudden cardiac arrest (SCA), the heart suddenly stops beating. Death can occur within minutes if not treated. SCA is usually caused by a failure in either the heart’s electrical or structural systems & involves a blockage or abnormalities in rhythm or electrical pathways. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart’s structural system, is the number one cause of SCA.

SCA warning signs

Sudden fainting is the most common warning sign ofsudden cardiac arrest. Other symptoms can include:

• Dizziness
• Shortness of breath
• Chest pain
• Extreme fatigue
• Rapid heart rate

 An unexplained family death of someone age 50 or younger due to cardiac arrest signals increased risk of SCA.

Athletes are also at greater risk for SCA because of heart exertion, says cardiologist David Shipon, MD of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.  This risk increases with age. SCA can occur from infancy through adulthood.

Parent Actions

Simon’s Fund, based in Lafayette Hill, PA, raises EKG research funds and awareness. It also provides free EKG screenings to thousands of Delaware Valley children. Parents can check screening locations, then register for an EKG.

• Visit the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Foundation website for more information.

Treatment can include medication, lifestyle change or even the use of a pacemaker or implanted defibrillator or other surgery, depending on the specific condition.

Dr. Shipon notes that the best prevention is a detailed history and physical along with an electrocardiogram (EKG). However, health organizations and insurance companies have not yet endorsed the use of EKG without a medical reason.

If the doctor finds something abnormal, an echocardiogram can be considered. “One in 100 kids could have an abnormality that needs follow-up treatment,” says Dr. Shipon.

According to a recent study, 2.5 athletes out of 100,000 will suddenly die on the playing field. Everyone needs to act quickly if a child has symptoms. In the event of sudden cardiac arrest, rapid treatment with an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) can prevent death.

Defibrillator and CPR training

The National Association for Sport & Physical Education strongly supports the access, training and presence of defibrillators during all school-sanctioned athletic activities, wide availability of AEDs and  annual training and certification in CPR & AED use.

Advocates say school emergency plans should include immediate access and use of a defibrillator. They  call for CPR and AED training for teachers, custodial staff & parents involved in volunteer school activities. New state laws now require coaches to receive CPR training, including SCA education.

States act to protect student athletes

Pennsylvania law requires training

On May 30, Gov. Thomas Corbett signed a new law that will require coaches, student athletes and their parents to take online training about SCA. If an athlete shows symptoms of SCA, he must be removed from play or practice until he is evaluated and cleared to play by an appropriate medical professional.

New Jersey considers more complete physicals

This year the New Jersey Student Athlete Cardiac Screening Task Force, created in 2010, issued recommendations under consideration by the state legislature, including taking a better family history and requiring a more complete physical exam prior to athletic participation. Schools must provide the brochure Sudden Cardiac Death in Young Athletes to parents of sports participants.

Delaware has multiple safeguards

Delaware requires public schools to have full-time nurses with current CPR and AED training. The state provides AEDs to public and private schools with more than 75 students. Coaches must receive CPR certification, which includes SCA education. Students must undergo physical exams prior to sports participation.

Mary Ann Muller is a MetroKids intern and graduate student at Rosemont College.


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