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SCA in Young Athletes

With the tragic event of the recent NFL Buffalo Bills’ player Damar Hamlin experiencing sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) on the field, all eyes are on young athletes’ hearts.

Hamlin, only 24 years old, was diagnosed with commotio cordis (Latin for “concussion of the heart”). This is the result of a violent hit to the chest. The blow interrupts electrical impulses and causes an arrhythmia or, disturbance of the heartbeat. It is just one type of SCA.

SCA is defined as the sudden and unexpected loss of a regular heart rhythm that immediately results in collapse and loss of consciousness. SCA in young people, while rare, is the No. 1 cause of death in young sports players in the US. Approximately 2000 youth under 25 years old die of SCA a year.

There are more than 20 different causes that lead to SCA. Many have no symptoms before this cardiac catastrophe in young people. Given this, what are some elements to look for?

Warning signs

While some SCA and its possible fatal outcome are seemingly out-of-the-blue, there are some warning signs that are sometimes overlooked.

*Fainting or seizures, on or off the field of play

*Dizziness or feeling lightheaded

 *Chest pain

*Palpitations--heartbeat skipping, irregular, or a fluttering sensation

*Severe fatigue

*Shortness of breath that is excessive or lasts beyond the activity

It is important to discourage telling a young athlete to “buck up” or “push past the discomfort.” Their heart may be telling adults that something is wrong.

What to do?

Sports screenings required before school participation are notoriously superficial. Cardiologists are now calling for all young athletes to receive medical screening per the American Heart Association (AHA) guidelines.

Having the medical practitioner simply listen to a young heart with a stethoscope is insufficient. Medical providers need to proceed with a comprehensive heart assessment when doing sports physicals.  

According to the AHA, they should listen for heartbeat irregularities and murmurs. Screening for high blood pressure, excessive fatigue, exertional chest pain, previous fainting, and excessive shortness of breath, both during and after sports, can further paint a more detailed cardiac picture. Assessing a young athlete’s blood pressure while lying down, sitting, and standing may reveal more serious heart issues as well.

If family history contains those who experienced premature death due to SCA, an electrocardiogram and echocardiography may be recommended. Unfortunately, statistics show these non-invasive procedures find some, but not all, heart issues and are costly.

Take symptoms seriously. Whether on a Colorado hike or ski run, high altitude and unforeseen heart issues may lead to tragedy. It’s a good habit to proactively identify the nearest AED (automated external defibrillator) whenever in public. This may save the life of a young person or others.

Any young athlete that collapses spontaneously needs to be assessed for a heartbeat and pulse right away. Obtain an AED immediately and initiate the machine’s automatic assessment. If one is not available, start CPR (chest compressions) while others call 911.


The sudden loss of a heartbeat is a disastrous event for anyone, and seemingly healthy young people are not exempt from SCA. Even if it is unpreventable, knowing there are precautions to take and serious signs to note can go a long way in protecting a young person’s life.  


Reference: Sudden Cardiac Arrest in Young People.