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Sudden cardiac death and athletes

Sudden cardiac death

(SCD) occurs rarely in athletes, but when it does happen, it often affects the wider community. Cause: Most cases of SCD are related to undetected cardiovascular disease. In the younger population, SCD is often due to congenital heart defects, while in older athletes (35 years and older), the cause is more often related to coronary artery disease.


Although SCD in athletes is rare, media coverage often makes it seem like it is more prevalent. In the younger population, most SCD occurs while playing team sports; in about one in 100,000 to one in 300,000 athletes, and more often in males. In older athletes (35 years and older), SCD occurs more often while running or jogging – in about one in 15,000 joggers and one in 50,000 marathon runners.


The American Heart Association recommends cardiovascular screening for secondary school and college athletes, which should include a complete and careful evaluation of the athlete’s personal and family history and a physical exam. A history should be obtained every year. Further investigation such as an echocardiogram or exercise stress test may be needed. If heart problems are identified or suspected, the athlete should be referred to a cardiologist for further evaluation and treatment guidelines before taking part in the sport.

Implantable cardioverter-defibrillator 

For patients who have a very high risk for SCD, an ICD may be inserted as a preventive treatment. An ICD is a small machine similar to a pacemaker that is designed to correct arrhythmias. It detects and then corrects a fast heart rate.

Interventional procedures or surgery:

For patients with coronary artery disease, an interventional procedure such as angioplasty or stent placement may be needed to improve blood flow to the heart muscle and reduce the risk of SCD. For patients with other conditions, such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy or congenital heart defects, an interventional procedure or surgery may be needed to correct the problem. Other procedures may be used to treat abnormal heart rhythms, including electrical cardioversion and catheter ablation.

What is the treatment for sudden cardiac


Sudden cardiac arrest can be treated and reversed, but emergency action must take place immediately. Survival can be as high as 90 percent if treatment is initiated within the first minutes after sudden cardiac arrest. The rate decreases by about 10 percent each minute longer. Those who survive have a good long-term outlook.


If you witness someone experiencing sudden cardiac arrest, immediately dial 9-9-9 or call your local emergency personnel and initiate CPR. If done properly, CPR can save a person’s life, as the procedure keeps blood and oxygen circulating through the body until help arrives. If an AED (Ambulatory External Defibrillator) is available, the best chance of rescuing the patient includes defibrillation with that device. The shorter the time until defibrillation, the greater the chance the patient will survive. It is CPR plus defibrillation that rescues the patient. Once emergency personnel arrive, defibrillation can be used to restart the heart. This is done through an electric shock delivered to the heart through paddles placed on the chest. After successful defibrillation, most patients require hospital care to treat and prevent future cardiac problems.
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