Back to Top Skip to main content

Sudden cardiac death in young athletes

High school basketball requires skill and rigorous training. In rare but highly publicized cases, it can also bring cardiac issues to the surface. (U.S. Army photo by Chuck Gannon) High school basketball requires skill and rigorous training. In rare but highly publicized cases, it can also bring cardiac issues to the surface. (U.S. Army photo by Chuck Gannon)

Recommended Content:

Conditions and Treatments | Health Readiness | Heart Health | Preventive Health

In January, a student athlete at Spartanburg High School in South Carolina collapsed after a basketball game against rival Riverside. Two coaches performed CPR and used a defibrillator until paramedics arrived. The teenager survived. Less than a month earlier at John Bowne High School in Flushing, Queens, New York, a student athlete, who his mother described as “healthy as you could imagine” collapsed during basketball practice. Sadly, coaches were unable to revive him. It was later determined Lenny Pierre, the New York student, had a major blood vessel in his heart that was in an abnormal location, resulting in sudden cardiac arrest. He was only 16.

Sudden cardiac events can occur in seemingly healthy young people in their teens or twenties, including young servicemembers. “Being in the military, you are signing yourself up for an active lifestyle, and I think most people want that,” said Army Lt. Col. Erik Johnson, a pediatric cardiologist at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. “I think that’s encouraged in dependents as well. Any accurate information is helpful in making sure families know what to look for in their kids so they get them to appropriate providers if necessary.”

Johnson said there are several possible causes of sudden cardiac death in young competitive athletes, such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy or HCM. “It is actually fairly common in the general population,” said Johnson. “About 1 in 500 people have this, and it accounts for about a third of sudden cardiac death in young athletes.”

While HCM is hereditary, other cardiac conditions are not, such as the coronary artery abnormality that caused Lenny Pierre’s death. “A coronary artery that doesn’t come off where it normally should causes another 15 to 20 percent of sudden cardiac death,” said Johnson. “Overall, more than 50 percent of the cases of sudden cardiac death in young athletes are caused by either HCM or coronary artery abnormalities.”

Heart problems in young people often go undetected, leaving providers to look for clues. “A provider could look at a child and suspect Marfan syndrome,” said Johnson. According to the National Institutes of Health, Marfan syndrome is a disorder that affects the connective tissue and may result in abnormalities such as dilation and rupture of the aorta, a catastrophic and often fatal event. Johnson added that a diagnosis of Marfan syndrome would mean exercise restrictions for the child.

Other causes of sudden cardiac issues in athletes include arrhythmias, myocarditis, and congenital heart disease. Arrhythmias are irregular heartbeats (too fast or too slow) which could be genetic or the result of a direct blow to the chest by a batted ball or an on-field collision. Myocarditis is an infection of the muscle of the heart that affects the heart’s ability to pump well. Congenital heart disease encompasses a number of structural problems of the heart that a child may be born with.

Johnson urges parents of young athletes and their coaches to be aware of signs and symptoms that indicate the need to see a provider before a catastrophic event. These include:

  • Chest pain with exertion every time a child tries to run or participate in some other kind of aerobic activity
  • Irregular heartbeat, where a child complains that the heart is beating too fast or too slow, or is skipping beats
  • Loss of consciousness during exercise
  • Decreased exercise tolerance, where a child feels fatigued with a level of exercise that was previously routine

“The American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology have put out guidelines looking at sports participation in patients who have [diagnosed] cardiac disease,” said Johnson. The guidelines, updated in 2015, list recommendations and restrictions for competitive athletes who engage in “vigorous training” while living with 15 different classifications of heart conditions.

While this information may be alarming, parents just need to be vigilant. Cases of sudden cardiac death in young athletes are exceedingly rare, with about 1 occurrence in 80,000 – 100,000 children per year, according to Johnson. In an otherwise healthy child, there is no need to place restrictions on activities or sports due to the remote possibility that something bad could happen.

There is clear evidence that activity like sports participation improves both the physical and mental health of children. “Some of the best screening we can do is to ask, ‘do they have symptoms?’ said Johnson. “The answers can clue you into looking deeper into some of these uncommon things.” Uncommon things that could save a life.

You also may be interested in...

Air Force updates medical courses with COVID-19 content, procedures

Article
8/7/2020
Two lab technicians wearing full PPE handling vials for testing

COVID-19 has pushed instructors and trainers to be more innovative.

Recommended Content:

Coronavirus | Health Readiness | Combat Support

Indiana National Guard continues to train in the COVID-19 environment

Article
8/5/2020
Soldiers in the field, wearing masks and testing equipment

Training in a time of COVID-19

Recommended Content:

Coronavirus | Health Readiness

Defending the Homeland: NMRTC Bremerton ensures Operational Readiness and a Medically Ready Force

Article
7/22/2020
Three healthcare workers wearing masks

Supporting mission readiness has long been a responsibility for the ready medical force of NMRTC Bremerton.

Recommended Content:

Coronavirus | Health Readiness

Eighth Army Medics compete to see Who’s the Best

Article
7/21/2020
Soldiers on an obstacle course

The BMC is an annual competition that physically and intellectually challenges competitors.

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness

I am Navy Medicine: Lt. Daniel Murrish

Article
7/9/2020
Image of Lt. Daniel Murrish wearing a mask

Murrish was recently selected as NMRTCCP’s Officer of the Year for calendar year 2019.

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness | Combat Support

MSMR Vol. 27 No. 7 - July 2020

Report
7/1/2020

A monthly publication of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch. This issue of the peer-reviewed journal contains the following articles: Hearing conservation measures of effectiveness across the Department of Defense; Alcohol-related emergency department visits, hospitalizations, and co-occurring injuries, active component, U.S. Armed Forces, 2009–2018; Surveillance snapshot: Cervical cancer screening among U.S. military service women in the Millennium Cohort Study, 2003–2015; Epidemiology of functional neurological disorder, active component, U.S. Armed Forces, 2000–2018.

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness | Public Health

Defending the Homeland: BACH Civilian earns RHC-A Civilian of the Year

Article
6/26/2020
Soldier and woman standing by two flags, crossed.

[Guidry] will advance to the U.S. Army’s Medical Command (MEDCOM) Civilian of the Year competition later this year.

Recommended Content:

Coronavirus | Health Readiness | Combat Support

NMCSD Civilian Receives BUMED Civilian Biomedical Technician of the Year Award

Article
6/24/2020
Technician wearing mask, adjusting medical equipment

Navy identifies its top Civilian biomedical technician of the year!

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness

Navy Care virtual health app wins innovation award

Article
6/12/2020
Soldier in front of a computer monitor

Navy Care offers a live, virtual visit with a clinician — from the patient's smartphone, laptop, or computer.

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness | Research and Innovation | Technology

MSMR Vol. 27 No. 6 - June 2020

Report
6/1/2020

A monthly publication of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch. This issue of the peer-reviewed journal contains the following articles: Absolute and relative morbidity burdens attributable to various illnesses and injuries, active component, U.S. Armed Forces, 2019; Hospitalizations, active component, U.S. Armed Forces, 2019; Ambulatory visits, active component, U.S. Armed Forces, 2019; Surveillance snapshot: Illness and injury burdens, reserve component, U.S. Armed Forces, 2019; A monthly publication of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch. This issue of the peer-reviewed journal contains the following articles: Letter to the editor: G6PD deficiency in the Tafenoquine era; Summary of the 2018–2019 influenza season among Department of Defense service members and other beneficiaries; Brief report: Direct care cost of heat illness to the Army, 2016–2018; Animal-related injuries in veterinary services personnel, U.S. Army, 2001–2018.

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness | Public Health

Brooke AMC stands up new Strategic Trauma Readiness Center

Article
5/26/2020
Three surgeons discussing a patient on an operating table

What makes STaRC truly unique is its comprehensive assessment plan

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness

MSMR Vol. 27 No. 5 - May 2020

Report
5/1/2020

A monthly publication of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch. This issue of the peer-reviewed journal contains the following articles: Absolute and relative morbidity burdens attributable to various illnesses and injuries, active component, U.S. Armed Forces, 2019; Hospitalizations, active component, U.S. Armed Forces, 2019; Ambulatory visits, active component, U.S. Armed Forces, 2019; Surveillance snapshot: Illness and injury burdens, reserve component, U.S. Armed Forces, 2019; Surveillance snapshot: Illness and injury burdens, recruit trainees, active component, U.S. Armed Forces, 2019; Medical evacuations out of the U.S. Central Command, active and reserve components, U.S. Armed Forces, 2019; Morbidity burdens attributable to various illnesses and injuries, deployed active and reserve component service members, U.S. Armed Forces, 2019; Absolute and relative morbidity burdens attributable to various illnesses and injuries, non-service member beneficiaries of the Military Health System, 2019; Prevalence of selected underlying health conditions among active component Army service members with coronavirus disease 2019, 11 February–6 April 2020; Early use of ICD-10-CM code “U07.1, COVID-19” to identify 2019 novel coronavirus cases in Military Health System administrative data.

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness | Public Health

MSMR Vol. 27 No. 4 - April 2020

Report
4/22/2020

A monthly publication of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch. This issue of the peer-reviewed journal contains the following articles: Commentary: The Warrior Heat- and Exertion-Related Event Collaborative and the Fort Benning Heat Center; Update: Heat illness, active component, U.S. Armed Forces, 2019; Update: Exertional rhabdomyolysis, active component, U.S. Armed Forces, 2015–2019; Update: Exertional hyponatremia, active component, U.S. Armed Forces, 2004–2019

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness | Public Health

FDA withdrawal of Zantac affects military health beneficiaries

Article
4/15/2020
Image of pharmacist counting out medication

Common heartburn drug pulled off shelves amid concerns

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness

Military medical training continues during COVID-19

Article
4/14/2020
Students and instructors in the METC Respiratory Therapist program practice safe distancing and wear face coverings while training with mechanical ventilators. (Photo by Oscar Lopez)

METC’s mission - to train the world's finest medics, corpsmen and technicians - is vital to force readiness and the nation.

Recommended Content:

Coronavirus | Health Readiness
<< < 1 2 3 4 5  ... > >> 
Showing results 1 - 15 Page 1 of 42

DHA Address: 7700 Arlington Boulevard | Suite 5101 | Falls Church, VA | 22042-5101

Some documents are presented in Portable Document Format (PDF). A PDF reader is required for viewing. Download a PDF Reader or learn more about PDFs.