Protect your heart before you play

Protect your heart before you play

In August 2012, students and faculty at Hall High School in Spring Valley, Illinois were stunned by the sudden cardiac death of a student football player. He died about 20 minutes into a Wednesday night practice.

The young man was among an estimated 2,000 people under age 25 who die of sudden cardiac arrest, according to a March 2012 statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics. The statement also pointed to research that suggests the incidence is going up, and competitive athletes are among the most at-risk.

What is sudden cardiac arrest?

There are two main functioning cycles in the heart, the pumping cycle and the electrical cycle. The electrical cycle controls the heart’s rhythm to pump blood. Sudden cardiac arrest occurs when the electrical cycle of the heart suddenly stops. This causes the heart to stop pumping blood to the brain and other vital organs. In children or young adults, sudden cardiac arrest is typically caused by an undiagnosed hereditary defect. This defect can trigger an irregular heart rhythm that then causes the cardiac arrest. It can also be caused by a sudden blow to the chest – something that can occur in many contact sports.

Many children and young adults with hereditary heart defects may not exhibit any warning signs. Most of these genetic abnormalities, both structural and electrical, cannot be diagnosed with a stethoscope alone and are not caught during normal pre-participation sports physicals.  These defects can include:

  • Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy – an inherited condition in which a portion the heart muscle has thickened with no obvious cause. This forces the heart to pump harder than normal to pump blood.
  • Long QT syndrome – a rare inborn heart disorder that causes dangerously uncontrollable irregularities in heart rhythm.
  • Brugada syndrome and Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome – genetic conditions that disrupt the heart’s electrical system

Preventing sudden cardiac arrest

“Because of the lack of obvious external symptoms, detecting these genetic abnormalities can be a challenge,” says Dr. James McCriskin, cardiologist with Advocate Heart Institute.  “We recommend that parents have their children undergo a screening electrocardiogram, especially if they are athletes or if they have a family history of heart defects.”

An electrocardiogram, or EKG, can detect certain serious heart conditions by recording the electrical activity of the heart. An EKG is able to detect approximately 60 percent of the abnormalities from these heart conditions that a stethoscope cannot. Completely painless, an EKG is obtained by attaching electrodes with slightly sticky backing to the skin of the chest, arms, and legs. The wires from the EKG machine are then connected to each of the electrodes. The young person lies quietly for several minutes while the EKG is captured.

The EKG, in tandem with a medical evaluation from a physician can identify the presence of a serious heart condition that could lead to sudden cardiac arrest.

“The EKG screening is not foolproof,” Dr. McCriskin cautions. “There are some conditions that cannot be detected with an EKG. But, until further testing is available, this is the best tool to detect those at risk.”

Research has proven this as well. A March 2010 study in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that adding an EKG to student athlete physicals could save 2.6 years of life for every 1,000 athletes screened compared to athletes who are not screened.

He adds that the screenings can result in approximately 2 percent of the tests being falsely positive, meaning that the EKG indicates a defect may exist, but further testing shows there is no problem. “We realize that this may cause some anxiety for parents, but we believe that the benefit of this potentially life-saving screening outweighs this concern,” he says.

Advocate for Young Hearts

In an effort to help prevent sudden cardiac deaths, Advocate BroMenn Medical Center, through a gift from the Advocate Charitable Foundation, has begun offering Advocate for Young Hearts, a free cardiac screening program for McLean County, Illinois area high school students.

The screening consists of an EKG, and may also include a limited echocardiogram to identify students at risk for sudden cardiac death.   The screenings will be available to all of the school’s students.

For more information and a list of upcoming McLean County, Illinois area screening dates, visit

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One Comment

  1. Dawn Golab-Grant March 11, 2013 at 11:37 am · Reply

    Thought this was important enought to share. 🙂

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health enews Staff
health enews Staff

health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Aurora Health sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.