Young Athletes and Sudden Cardiac Death: What Parents Need to Know

Health Tips from UPMC Health Plan

Girl playing soccer.Is your child among the three to five million young people in the United States who play organized sports each year? If so, you know that a pre-participation physical examination can help identify young athletes who may be at risk for an injury or illness that could require additional medical evaluation.

Recently, identifying young athletes who may be at risk of sudden cardiac death has become a hot topic among sports medicine professionals, focusing the attention of parents on the need for better cardiovascular screening of young athletes.

“Sudden cardiac death (SCD) in young athletes is extremely rare,” says Vivekanand Allada, MD, clinical director of pediatric cardiology at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC and professor of pediatrics. “In fact, it’s a one in a million risk.”

According to Dr. Allada, sudden death in young athletes is most often due to heart problems, such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (an abnormal thickening of the heart). Other causes include congenital coronary anomalies, arrhythmia (which can be caused by a blow to the chest), and Marfan syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that can weaken the aorta and lead to a tear or rupture.

“Unfortunately, there’s no perfect test to find a needle in a haystack,” says Dr. Allada. However, parents can take steps to uncover risk factors that may require more testing or a consultation with a pediatric cardiologist. The AHA recommends that young athletes undergo a screening medical history to check specifically for:

  • Chest pain, palpitations, or fainting during exercise (red flags that require immediate attention)
  • A history of a heart murmur or hypertension
  • Family history of coronary disease, sudden death, or Marfan syndrome

Children with any of these risk factors or an abnormal physical exam should see a pediatric cardiologist, who is specially trained to look for cardiac problems in children and teens, Dr. Allada says. Further testing might include an EKG, echocardiogram, and stress test.

He offers these tips to parents:

  • Don’t let your child play through chest pain. Pain can be a warning sign.
  • Teach your child to avoid energy drinks that have high levels of caffeine. Such drinks can make the heart race and cause cardiac arrhythmias. They are particularly dangerous for athletes with undiagnosed cardiac problems.

To learn more about caring for your child’s heart, visit www.chp.edu, then click on Child Health A-Z. To schedule an appointment with a Children’s-affiliated physician, call 412-692-PEDS (7337).

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