The Real Risk of Sudden Cardiac Arrest in Young Athletes

The Real Risk of Sudden Cardiac Arrest in Young Athletes

by evergreenpt, October 13, 2017

Sudden cardiac arrest.  

No, it’s not a heart attack.  The name itself is alarming, yet many of us often fall into thinking that nobody near us will be affected by such a thing.  “Not my child…not my athlete…”


Rewind to March 10th, 2014 at the Dallas Stars and Columbus Blue Jackets hockey game when Rich Peverley suddenly collapsed on the bench.  He was saved by his athletic trainers’ quick recognition that he had suffered sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) and needed to activate their emergency action plan, begin CPR, and utilize an automated external defibrillator (AED) to revive Peverley.[1]  Read the full story here:


Yes, it can even happen to professionals.  In Peverley’s case, the cause was an irregular heartbeat not previously diagnosed…  


Though many can fall into the trap in thinking that they and their loved ones are immune to SCA, the reality is that it is one of the leading causes of death in physically active or athletic youth.  There are 110 SCA related deaths per year in young athletes in the United States…that’s 1 death every 3 days, but professionals make the argument that these numbers are largely underestimated.[2]  The American Heart Association reports that well over 6,000 teens experience SCA every year with at least 80% of youth victims being asymptomatic until SCA occurs.[3] There is a clear necessity for thorough screenings as a method of prevention.


SCA in youth athletes is caused by a number of congenital or genetic cardiac abnormalities or disorders that may be difficult to screen for without an ECG/EKG and echocardiogram.  These tests are not typically included in a youth athlete’s annual physical.  In addition to these tests, early detection should include a detailed medical history inquiring about exertional dizziness and/or fainting, chest pain, previous cardiac arrest, and family history of cardiac arrest or sudden cardiac death.[4]   

Athletic trainers spend hours training in the event that they need to activate their emergency action plan in response to SCA.  It’s obvious that the best way to prepare for SCA is to work to prevent it by ensuring athletes are screened, warning signs are noted, and the emergency action plan is well rehearsed.  It should be noted however, that sudden cardiac arrest may occur with no warning signs.  


Even athletes with structurally healthy hearts are at risk for SCA.  Commotio cordis is a disruption of the hearts normal rhythm caused by a blunt blow to the chest and accounts for 20% of SCA deaths in athletes.  This can happen even if an athlete is wearing some form of chest protector.  If you can imagine: an errant pitch, a slap shot, a tackle, a kick or punch to the chest…you get the idea.  All the more reason to have well qualified certified athletic trainers present during athletic events, especially with youth athletics as children are at greater risk.



Luckily, there are a number of organizations at work to bring attention to SCA in our youth.  Many of these organizations, like SAFE Heart Screening, offer low cost or free ECG/EKG and echocardiograms to young athletes.  Below are a list of resources that can help you stay informed at how to keep your young athlete safe.  


SAFE Heart Screening conducts area screenings for teens 14 and up.  Follow this link,, to learn more about the screening process and to schedule an appointment for your teen.


-Nick Tavoukjian



  1. Brown N. His heart stopped while playing an NHL game. An AED saved him. Now pevs wants to save others. Huffington Post. March 07, 2016. Accessed October 13, 2017.
  2. The Eric Paredes Save a Life Prevention Act-AB1639. Eric Paredes Save a Life Foundation Web site. Accessed October 12, 2017.
  3. Mozaffarian DM, Benjamin EJ, Go AS, et al. Heart disease and stroke statistics – 2015 update: a report from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2015;131:00-00. doi:
  4. Casa DJ, Guskiewicz KM, Anderson SA, et al. National athletic trainers’ association position statement: preventing sudden death in sports. J Athl Train. 2012:47(1):96-118.
  5. National Athletic Trainers’ Association.  Sudden cardiac arrest infographic handout. 2016.

Football/AED Image Source:


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