Why Do Some Young Athletes Suffer Cardiac Arrest?


Sources: Geoffrey Rogers (video); MSN/BBC News

Buffalo Bills National Football League football player Damar Hamlin is the latest athlete to encounter heart problems during competitive play. On January 2, 2023, the 24-year-old fell to the ground after an opponent collided with his chest during a nationally televised game.

Medics confirmed he had gone into cardiac arrest — meaning his heart had stopped beating properly and was unable to do its job of pumping blood around the body. Urgent resuscitation was required on the field to help save his life.

Doctors treating him have not yet described the exact underlying cause. Two possibilities:

Blunt force trauma is a rare scenario: a direct hit to the chest can result in cardiac arrest by making the heart go into an abnormal, life-threatening rhythm, triggering was is called commotio cordis. Blunt force trauma can also cause major structural damage to the heart from the impact of the blow.

Another potentially lethal heart condition affecting some young athletes is a genetic disorder known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Individuals who have this can appear extremely fit and well, with no obvious warning signs that there is a such a serious underlying problem. It is a condition in which the heart muscle becomes overgrown — making it harder for the heart to pump blood — and it may be related life-threatening heart rhythm problems, too.

Sudden death syndrome (SDS) is an umbrella term used for the many different causes of cardiac arrest in young people. In about 1 in every 20 cases of sudden cardiac death and up to 1 in 5 young sudden cardiac deaths, no definite cause of death can be found, even after an expert cardiac pathologist has examined the heart for structural abnormalities.

A simple way to diagnose many cardiac abnormalities is by having an ECG (electrocardiogram) test. It can reveal if the electrical impulses are awry. Dangerous arrhythmias can then be treated before they cause a major problem.


UPDATES: On January 9, 2023, Hamlin was deemed sufficiently recovered to be transferred to a hospital in Buffalo NY. He was released two days later to complete his recovery at home. On January 23, he appeared at a Buffalo Bills playoff game.


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