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Sudden Cardiac Death In Athletes

Sudden Cardiac Death In Athletes - Causes & Prevention
Sudden Cardiac Death In Athletes

Endurance exercise–you may hate it or you may love it, but its long term benefits are invaluable. Everyone should consider implementing endurance exercises into their workout routine as it greatly reduces the risk of heart disease. Research from the Journal of the American College of Cardiology showed that runners were 45% less likely to die a cardiovascular-related death and could potentially add three years to their life expectancy. The even better news? The journal explained that “running, even 5 to 10 min/day and at slow speeds <6 miles/h,” can mitigate risks of cardiovascular disease. Being active after a cardiovascular malfunction can also be incredibly beneficial to your health (be sure to check with your doctor before proceeding).

Despite how you may feel about endurance exercise or how often you engage in them, “hitting the wall” is a feeling almost everyone has encountered at some point. Infamously, “hitting the wall” is the swift and painful feeling of energy depletion and fatigue. Whether it be while in the office, exercising, or just going about your day, it’s not a great feeling. Endurance is super important, and among a plethora of other benefits, it helps to sustain us through our hectic schedules, improve our sleep habits and of course, prevent cardiovascular disorders.

“In these moments when you hit the wall, it becomes really difficult to continue pushing yourself physically. The few times that I’ve fallen at the end of running races, usually when dehydrated, my legs begin feeling weak and unstable until I cross the finish line and proceed to rest on the ground. It’s like your legs are simultaneously made of bricks and jello.”

-Impala Racing Team member and former Williams College runner, Anna Harleen.

What Causes Sudden Cardiac Death In Athletes?

Despite their reputation for being the healthiest of people, athletes are as susceptible to cardiac arrest as anyone else. In fact, studies have even found that athletes can possess a 3x higher risk of cardiac arrest when compared to non-athletes. 

1 out of 126,626 runners die during a race with cardiac disease as the primary cause. On the surface, this may seem rare, but when considering how frequently athletes compete, cardiac arrest claims a staggering number of lives.

So when marathoners hit the not-so-seemingly hypothetical “wall,” it’s generally at about the 20-mile mark.

What Causes Sudden Cardiac Arrest In Athletes

When the race mileage becomes as great as a marathon (26.2 miles), it’s far too taxing on the body to practice at distances longer than 26.2 miles. Most runners train at no more than 20-22 miles in one run and trust that the adrenaline and intensity from the moment will carry them to the finish line.

Around the 20 mile mark, something quite contradictory can happen- runners can go into cardiac arrest. The stressors from the race atmosphere and electrolyte imbalances in addition to having never continuously run such a distance are some notable contributors to cardiovascular malfunctions. These factors apply to athletes across the board: malnutrition from endurance exercise or even a stressful game going long into overtime can be cause for cardiac arrest.

The mileage doesn’t have to be as long as a marathon as fatigue can manifest itself at different stages of endurance exercise depending on the fitness and health of the individual. Like many injuries, cardiac arrest is swift and unexpected, but most importantly, much more frequent than commonly perceived.

How to Prevent Sudden Cardiac Arrest in Athletes

While Sudden Cardiac Arrest is unpredictable and often happens with little to no warning, there are things you can do to prevent and prepare for this medical emergency.

Screening For Cardiovascular Disease in Young Athletes

Getting a heart screening is a crucial preventative measure against cardiac arrest. While most schools and youth programs do not require heart screenings as a part of regular sports physicals, they absolutely should. 1 in 300 youth have an undiagnosed heart condition that could potentially lead to cardiac arrest. Early detection via medical evaluations and electrocardiograms allows for timely intervention and personalized treatment plans.

Sudden Cardiac Death In Athletes – Prevention

CPR and AED Certified Athletic Trainers

Having trained professionals at athletic events (and nearby during practices) is a good way to safeguard against cardiac arrest and other medical emergencies that are more likely to occur during intense exercise and competition. When it comes to cardiac arrest, CPR and early defibrillation with an AED provide the highest chances of survival for a person, and athletic trainers truly represent the first line of defense. Whether it’s a state-wide marathon or a high school lacrosse game, having someone who is trained in CPR and the use of an AED will help ensure that immediate action gets taken in the event of a suspected cardiac arrest. The biggest enemy to survival from cardiac arrest is time, so the proper training proves so important when responding to this emergency.

sudden cardiac death in athletes

The Avive Connect AED

AED Accessibility

While CPR will keep blood flowing through the body during a cardiac arrest, the only way to restore a person’s heart rhythm and save their life is by delivering a shock from an AED, or Automated External Defibrillator. Many schools with sports programs are required to have AEDs on the premises, and that’s because the impact they make on survivability of cardiac arrest is not only proven, but it’s hugely positive.

2018 study found exercise-related Sudden Cardiac Arrest to have survival rates of 48%, which is significantly higher than the national average, less than 10%. In this study, bystander CPR resulted in 63% survival, there was an 83% survival rate when an athletic trainer was present, and the use of an AED resulted in an 89% survival rate! These findings highlight the necessity for trained professionals and the proper lifesaving equipment wherever athletics are taking place.

Victoria Kingham, a runner for the Central Park Track Club shared why she was so grateful to have an AED where she competes:

“I didn’t understand the importance of having an AED in athletic sites until last year when I saw a professional runner collapse and go into cardiac arrest in the middle of a race. Doctors told him that were it not for the fact that the track facility had an AED, he most certainly would have died. I always assumed that a track wouldn’t need an AED; runners have healthy hearts. But now I understand that a cardiac emergency can happen to anyone and that, if it does, having an AED on hand can prevent a tragedy.”

Using an AED is simple and it works effectively.

Prevent sudden cardiac death by ensuring an AED is available for use at all times.

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