Healthcare Services and Programs
At OhioHealth, we take the care of young athletes to heart, especially when it comes to the critical possibility of Sudden Cardiac Death.
It’s important to know the risk factors for Sudden Cardiac Death and the symptoms associated with it. Physical exertion can uncover a heart or circulatory problem, which means all children and teenagers who are physically active potentially are at risk and should undergo routine evaluation for potential problems.
Fortunately, the actual risk to a specific athlete is very low, about one in 200,000 per year. Nevertheless, some young adults may have an undiagnosed heart condition, which would increase their risk for a sudden cardiac event during extreme athletic activity.
Be aware of these symptoms
Although many athletes who have a sudden cardiac event have had no prior symptoms, it is important to pay attention to any unusual symptoms that could indicate an underlying heart or circulatory problem. These symptoms may have a variety causes, but they should prompt an evaluation.
- The most important symptom is lightheadedness or passing out during exertion or athletic activity.
- Other symptoms include chest pain and shortness of breath, particularly with exertion.
- A history of sudden cardiac death or other heart conditions in the athlete's family may also indicate an elevated risk. In particular, the sudden death of a blood relative before the age of 50 could indicate a genetic risk for heart disease.
Any of these symptoms or a family history of sudden cardiac death or a heart condition should be mentioned during a student athlete’s pre-participation sports physical.
In addition, coaches and parents periodically should ask their student athletes if they've experienced any of these symptoms. If any are present, they warrant a full evaluation of the student athlete by a personal physician or other health professional.
OhioHealth Heart & Vascular Physicians provides some of the nation's best expertise and care for your family
Anne R. Albers, MD, PhD, FACC, FACE, RVT
Riverside Methodist Hospital
Kanny S. Grewal, MD, FACC, FASE, FASNC
Medical Director, Cardiac Imaging Laboratory
Riverside Methodist Hospital
Dr. Anne R. Albers, MD, and Dr. Kanny S. Grewal, MD, have years of cardiology education, experience and expertise. They offer important information about Sudden Cardiac Death in an FAQ below for parents with young athletes.
If you believe your student athlete has any of the risk factors or exhibits any of the warning signs listed here, you should make an appointment with your primary care physician (PCP) or pediatrician for an evaluation.
If you do not have a PCP or pediatrician, we can help you find one. Find a Doctor online or call us 24/7 (614) 4-HEALTH (443-2584) or 1-(800) 837-7555.
FAQ: Sudden Cardiac Death Risk in Young Athletes
What causes sudden cardiac death in athletes and other young adults?[Open]
There are a wide variety of conditions that can cause sudden heart problems in young adults
- Some of these are structural conditions of the heart, which were present at birth or may develop as a person grows but cause no symptoms until there is intense or vigorous athletic exertion. These conditions include abnormal thickening of the heart muscle, abnormal heart valves or abnormalities in the blood vessels that supply blood to the heart muscle.
- Other patients can have an abnormality of the heart electrical system, which can lead to a fast or irregular heartbeat, which can cause fainting or even sudden death.
- In about one third of these episodes, no specific structural or underlying electrical problem can be identified. On rare occasions, the sudden impact of a ball or sudden physical contact can cause an irregular heart rhythm in an otherwise healthy participant.
How can we screen for heart disease in young athletes?[Open]
There are two important steps to take for screening:
- For children and teenagers, the pre-participation sports physical is the first step to detect potential heart problems.
- If any abnormalities are identified, a full clinical evaluation by a pediatrician, family doctor, sports medicine specialist or sports cardiologist should be performed prior to any athletic participation.
What kinds of tests are usually performed in a full clinical evaluation by a pediatrician, family doctor, sports medicine specialist or sports cardiologist?[Open]
Because an EKG can only look for certain structural or electrical abnormalities, another test used for screening is an echocardiogram, or cardiac ultrasound. This is a painless test to detect abnormal enlargement, thickening or dysfunction of the heart structures.
In the United States, an EKG is not routinely recommended, mainly because of the time and cost associated with the testing; however, many countries, and certain sports medicine experts, recommend an EKG, if it is feasible to obtain.
Will my child benefit from more advanced screening beyond the pre-participation physical?[Open]
All children and teenagers should undergo a standard sports physical once a year, performed by a qualified physician or sports medicine specialist. This assessment should follow the standards set by the American Heart Association.
Currently, a screening with EKG or echocardiogram is not routinely recommended, but it could be considered when there is a family history of heart disease or when parents, coaches or the athletes themselves want additional reassurance. This screening should be performed by sports medicine and cardiology specialists, who can explain both the accuracy and the limitations of the testing and act as a resource in the community for parents and coaches. **For children/athletes with symptoms, a full clinical evaluation is required, not simply a screening.
When do I need to withhold my child or athlete from physical activity?[Open]
This decision can only be made by the parent or athlete in consultation with a personal physician or sports medicine specialist who has personally evaluated your child. OhioHealth offers consultative services from sports cardiologists and/or sports medicine specialists, allowing prompt evaluation and testing when necessary, with the goal of providing urgent assessment, therapy, if needed, and return to normal activity and athletics.
What else can I do to understand Sudden Cardiac Death?[Open]
There are things you can do today and additional resources to better understand your young athlete's risk:
- Know your family history
- Ask questions about your child's heart health
- Take symptoms seriously and ask your physician for further cardiac testing
- Find out if your child's school, sporting events and practices are equipped with an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) and staff trained to use it.
- Learn CPR & AED use
- Join Parent Heart Watch
How can I help if I witness an athlete collapse or faint?[Open]
Find out if your child’s school, sporting events or practices are equipped with an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) and staff trained to use it. Learn CPR and AED use.
Read more about heart health and screening guidelines in these additional resources: