Ask Dr. Nandi: What causes sudden cardiac arrest in young athletes?

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Posted at 6:07 PM, Feb 01, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-01 18:16:26-05

DETROIT (WXYZ) — It was just a month ago when we watched Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin collapse on the football field.

Now, we have a high school senior in Detroit who went into cardiac arrest during a basketball game Tuesday night. The student was hospitalized and put on life support.

What can cause these sudden cardiac events in young athletes?

Sudden cardiac arrest is an unexpected and sudden loss of heart function. It’s due to an electrical abnormality that causes the heart to stop beating normally. And it leads to collapse and unconsciousness.

Now, we don’t know all the causes behind sudden cardiac arrest in young athletes, but here are a few.

The first is the most common in young people and that’s hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. What happens is the ventricles or muscle cells in the heart's lower chambers thicken up. And this can cause an abnormal heart rhythm, especially when an athlete exercises.

Next is coronary artery abnormalities. This means that blood vessels are abnormally connected to the main blood vessel of the heart. And during exercise, the heart may get a decrease in blood supply, which can cause cardiac arrest.

Other causes are myocarditis, which means the walls of the heart are inflamed. This usually happens when a virus gets into the heart. Also, primary arrhythmias can cause sudden cardiac arrest.

These are undiagnosed genetic conditions that affect the heart's electrical impulses. And lastly, there’s commotio cordis, which is caused by a hit to the chest directly over the heart at a specific point during the heartbeat cycle.

Some young athletes have no symptoms at all, while others may experience warning signs like shortness of breath, chest pain, an abnormal heart rhythm or fainting.

As for testing like an EKG, electrocardiogram, or an echocardiogram, which is an ultrasound of the heart, they are not currently recommended for mass screening because of the high false positive results. Plus, not all heart issues are picked up by these types of tests. And it's important to know that there is no perfect method to detecting heart issues.

Now, some of the conditions I mentioned earlier are inherited or run in families. So, it’s very important that an athlete has a comprehensive medical history and physical exam if anyone in the family has heart disease, died unexpectedly before the age of 40, or if they experience any symptoms I mentioned.

Lastly, parents should be aware that male athletes are at greater risk than females, especially African American athletes. And for some unknown reason, the risk seems to be higher in basketball and football.

Related: Detroit student on life support after collapsing during basketball game