Sudden cardiac death is when someone dies suddenly from a heart problem. Sudden cardiac death in athletes is when someone dies suddenly from a heart problem brought on by exercise.
Sudden cardiac death in athletes is rare (about 1 in 200,000 athletes)
It can happen to older people who know they have heart problems
It also can happen to people who are young and seem healthy but have a heart problem they don't know about
Talk to your doctor before starting a new sport or exercise routine
People also can die during exercise because of things like an asthma Asthma Asthma is a condition in which the breathing passages (airways) in your lungs get narrow. When the airways are narrow, it's hard to breathe. Breathing often makes a squeaky musical sound called... read more attack, heatstroke Heatstroke Heatstroke is a medical emergency caused by your body temperature going too high. If you don't cool down quickly enough, you can die or have brain or organ damage. Heatstroke happens when you're... read more , or an injury. These aren't usually considered sudden cardiac death because a heart problem wasn't the main cause.
What causes sudden cardiac death in athletes?
Older people usually have coronary artery disease Overview of Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) The heart is a muscle that pumps blood. Like all muscles, the heart needs a steady supply of blood to work. Blood that pumps through the heart doesn't feed the heart muscle. Instead the heart... read more . The arteries that feed their heart with oxygen are clogged. They may or may not know they have a heart problem.
Younger people usually have rare heart problems that they were born with. They usually don't know they have a heart problem.
The most common heart problem in younger people is:
Other heart problems in younger people include:
Heart conditions that make your heart rhythm abnormal when you exercise or feel stress, such as long QT syndrome Long QT Syndrome and Torsades de Pointes Ventricular Tachycardia Torsades de pointes ventricular tachycardia is a specific type of ventricular tachycardia that occurs in people who have a particular disorder of the heart's electrical activity called long... read more
A weak area or bulge in a part of your aorta (the main artery that carries blood away from your heart to the rest of your body—the weak area or bulge is called an aortic aneurysm Overview of Aortic Aneurysms and Aortic Dissection The aorta, which is about 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) in diameter, is the largest artery of the body. It receives oxygen-rich blood from the left ventricle and distributes it to all of the body... read more )
Birth defects in your coronary arteries (blood vessels that bring your heart oxygen)
At any age, you're more likely to have sudden cardiac death during exercise if you use street drugs that stimulate the heart. Such drugs include cocaine and amphetamines.
What are the symptoms of sudden cardiac death?
Most young athletes are healthy and don't know they have a heart problem. Some athletes have warning signs such as fainting or shortness of breath. Athletes may not realize these are symptoms of a serious problem and may not tell anyone.
However, the first sign is usually that the person suddenly collapses. Their heart isn't beating, and they aren't breathing. People usually die unless given CPR Standard CPR Cardiac arrest is when the heart stops pumping blood and oxygen to the brain and other organs and tissues. Sometimes a person can be revived after cardiac arrest, particularly if treatment is... read more .
How can doctors tell if I am at risk for sudden cardiac death?
See your doctor before you begin a sport or exercise program. Your doctor will ask about your health history and do a physical exam to catch problems that could make exercise dangerous for you.
High school athletes should have an examination every other year. Adults should have one every 4 years. If doctors know you have certain medical problems, they'll usually check you more often.
Risk factors doctors will ask you about include:
Having symptoms such as chest pain or discomfort, a fast beating heart or a heartbeat that feels uneven, fainting or near-fainting, fatigue, and difficulty breathing, especially when these symptoms happen during hard exercise
Having family members who fainted or died during exercise, or who died suddenly before about age 50
Depending on your age, health history, symptoms, and the specific sport you do, doctors may do tests such as:
Electrocardiogram Electrocardiography Electrocardiography is a test that measures your heart’s electrical activity. It's quick, painless, and harmless. The results of that test are shown in an electrocardiogram. It looks like a... read more (ECG—a quick, painless, harmless test that measures your heart’s electrical currents and records them on a piece of paper)
Ultrasound Echocardiography and Other Ultrasound Procedures Echocardiography can be used to detect abnormalities in heart wall motion and to measure the volume of blood being pumped from the heart with each beat. This procedure can also detect abnormalities... read more (a test that uses sound waves to create a picture of your heart and how it's working)
Stress test Stress Testing A stress test lets doctors see how your heart works when it’s under stress, such as when you exercise. Many heart problems are easier for your doctor to find when your heart is working hard... read more (a test to check how your heart works when it’s beating faster, like when you’re working out)
In some countries outside the United States, doctors recommend that everybody get an ECG before starting an exercise program.
How do doctors treat sudden cardiac death?
A person who stops breathing and collapses needs immediate treatment:
CPR Standard CPR Cardiac arrest is when the heart stops pumping blood and oxygen to the brain and other organs and tissues. Sometimes a person can be revived after cardiac arrest, particularly if treatment is... read more (a life-saving method of pressing on the chest and giving rescue breathing)
Use of an external defibrillator (a device that delivers an electrical shock to the chest to bring back a regular heartbeat)
If the person lives, doctors treat the condition that caused the problem. They may give medicines or put in an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator. An implantable cardioverter-debrillator is a device doctors put in the heart to monitor its beat and restart the heart if it stops working.
Automated External Defibrillator: Jump-Starting the Heart
An automated external defibrillator (AED) is a device that can detect and correct a type of abnormal heart rhythm called ventricular fibrillation. Ventricular fibrillation causes cardiac arrest.
AEDs are easy to use. The American Red Cross and other organizations provide training sessions on the use of AEDs. Most training sessions take only a few hours; but it is possible to use an AED even if you have never participated in a training course. Different AEDs have somewhat different instructions for use. The instructions are written on the AED, and most modern AEDs also use voice prompts to direct the user in each step. AEDs are available in many public gathering places, such as stadiums, airports, and concert halls. People who are told by their doctor that they are likely to develop ventricular fibrillation but who do not have an implanted defibrillator may want to purchase an AED for home use by family members, who should be trained in its use.