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What to Know About Cardiac Arrest in Athletes

Last updated: August 24, 2023

The acute sideline care that was administered to Bronny James and Damar Hamlin played a significant role in their positive outcomes. Medical teamwork saves lives.

Dr. Ryan Wagner, Non-Surgical Sports Medicine Physician, ThedaCare Orthopedic Care

As cases of cardiac arrest among athletes have hit the news this year, it’s led to shock and many questions. People may wonder what can lead to a life-threatening medical emergency in seemingly healthy young athletes. The answer can vary.

For many kids and teens, team sports are a fun rite of passage — one that brings joy to young people and parents alike. As kids get older, though, physical training becomes more intense and goal-oriented. High school athletes may push themselves harder in pursuit of scholarships or earning a spot on a college team.

The increased stress this puts on athletes’ bodies has both positive and negative consequences. Overall, living an active lifestyle keeps these people in shape and helps prevent issues with weight, metabolism, and overall health. But pushing their bodies so hard also increases young athletes’ risk for adverse events like sudden cardiac arrest — which is the leading cause of death for this group.

Many Cardiac Arrest Causes

Several conditions can cause sudden cardiac arrest in young people, says Dr. Ryan Wagner, a Non-Surgical Sports Medicine Physician with ThedaCare Orthopedic Care. These include congenital heart defects, diseases that affect the electrical system of the heart, cardiomyopathy, and arrhythmias. In addition, athletes can be at risk for a rare condition called commotio cordis, which is a different sort of cardiac arrest.

“It can occur from a severe blow to the chest as in a sports injury,” Dr. Wagner says. “This typically affects the heart’s myocardium, resulting in ventricular fibrillation and causing cardiac arrest in a structurally normal heart.”

That means anyone can suffer a sudden cardiac arrest after experiencing trauma to their chest — even if they have a perfectly normal heart.

Quick Action Matters

Recent incidents affecting two high-profile athletes have drawn attention to the issue of sudden cardiac arrest among young athletes.

In July, Bronny James, a University of Southern California basketball player and son of NBA star LeBron James, suffered cardiac arrest during a practice with his team. He received immediate care and spent time in the intensive care unit before being discharged. It’s not yet clear what caused James’ cardiac arrest.

Earlier this year, Damar Hamlin, a safety for the Buffalo Bills, suffered a cardiac arrest during an NFL Monday Night Football game that millions of people were watching. He took a tackle to his chest and immediately collapsed and became unresponsive. In subsequent months, doctors confirmed that commotio cordis led to Hamlin’s cardiac arrest.

The presence of trained medical experts made all the difference in the outcomes for both Hamlin and James. As thousands of fans watched in the stands, Buffalo Bills assistant athletic trainer Denny Kellington administered lifesaving CPR on Hamlin. James received similar prompt care.

“The acute sideline care that was administered to Bronny James and Damar Hamlin played a significant role in their positive outcomes,” Dr. Wagner says. “Medical teamwork saves lives.”

Proactive care can mean the difference between life and death.

That’s one of the benefits of professional sports teams: dedicated health care staff that includes doctors, physical therapists, and licensed athletic trainers (LATs). These skilled professionals help athletes perform their best, while also caring for any injuries they may sustain.

Not Just for Pros

Onsite health care professionals aren’t only reserved for professional athletes. ThedaCare Orthopedic Care partners with area high schools to provide sports medicine specialists. Through the program, ThedaCare sports medicine physicians and LATs offer oversight and care for student athletes in northeast and central Wisconsin. 

“ThedaCare and local high schools have a strong relationship that provides athletic trainers to care for high school athletes,” Dr. Wagner says. “As physicians, we work closely with the athletic trainers. Oftentimes, they send athletes to our clinic for evaluation, and we collaborate to help return the athlete to their sport.”

LATs carry much of the responsibility for medical intervention at high school sporting events.

“From taking care of athletes in the locker room on a daily basis to providing care on the sidelines during sporting events, they are the eyes and ears that tend to acute, on-field injuries,” Dr. Wagner says. “They also help athletes rehabilitate to get them back on the field safely.”

LATs are fully equipped to respond to many medical situations, including cardiac arrest. They also complete regular training and coordinate with emergency medical services to ensure a high level of care.

In addition to completing advanced cardiovascular life support (ACLS) training, LATs develop emergency action plans at the high schools. During a medical emergency, medical staff are the front line who use automated external defibrillators (AEDs) in the event of a cardiac arrest.

Peace of Mind

Working together as a team provides an added layer of safety that helps put parents, coaches, and athletes at ease. They can focus on what they do best, knowing that health care providers from ThedaCare are prepared to step in whenever necessary. However, parents and student athletes can also take steps to monitor heart health and prioritize prevention.

Parents can talk to their child’s physician or a sports medicine specialist about whether cardiac testing is needed. Screenings may identify athletes who are at risk for cardiovascular issues.

Cardiovascular screenings can flag problems before they become serious or life-threatening. An EKG screening, for example, can detect structural abnormalities of the heart or issues with the heart’s electrical system.

“Cardiac arrest, however, can still occur despite having EKGs and further cardiac evaluation,” Dr. Wagner says.

If an EKG reveals a concern, there’s an opportunity for additional testing. And if a diagnosis results from this process, the athlete and their family can seek treatment and understand their physical limitations.

No matter the steps young athletes take to stay healthy, incidents can still happen. Remaining vigilant can help keep everyone safe at athletic events and in other settings. “Be aware of your surroundings,” Dr. Wagner says. “If something doesn’t look right or there appears to be a medical emergency, please reach out for help immediately. A matter of a few seconds can save a life.”

Tags: Bronny James Damar Hamlin high school sports Licensed athletic trainers sports medicine

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