Testing for conditions that could put teens at risk for sudden cardiac arrest

October 22, 2019 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health

It seems unimaginable — a healthy teenage athlete collapsing on the playing field from sudden cardiac arrest.

But it happens more often than you’d think. According to Young Hearts for Life (YH4L), about 3,000 young people under the age of 25 die from sudden cardiac arrest each year in the United States. Thought to be a leading cause of death among young athletes, sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) occurs when the heart abruptly stops beating.

“Often they don’t have any symptoms,” says cardiologist Joseph Marek, M.D., who is affiliated with Edward-Elmhurst Health.

If symptoms occur, they can include shortness of breath, a racing heartbeat, chest pain or dizzy spells. But sometimes these symptoms are mistakenly attributed to being the result of a vigorous workout or are not seen as life-threatening in a healthy teenager.

“These young adults aren’t seasoned enough to recognize it’s something abnormal,” says Dr. Marek.

Dr. Marek founded YH4L to promote awareness of sudden cardiac arrest among youth. The screening program includes electrocardiograms (EKG) to detect conditions that could lead to sudden cardiac arrest.

“When you look at news stories over the last 10 years of young adults who have died from sudden cardiac arrest, they cover the whole spectrum,” he says, recalling articles of a Division 1 football player or a drill team member who died from sudden cardiac arrest.

Through YH4L, Dr. Marek has made screenings available at high schools throughout Chicagoland. Edward-Elmhurst Health sponsors screenings at schools in its service area.

“We’re looking for conditions that could be putting your child at risk for life-threatening cardiac catastrophes,” says Dr. Marek.

Though the vast majority of the tests show no cause for concern, for a few, the screenings alert for heart conditions that could lead to sudden cardiac arrest.

Some of the conditions that could cause SCA include:

  • Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which occurs when the muscle cells in the heart’s lower chambers thicken, causing an abnormal heart rhythm. This condition is typically inherited, but is often undiagnosed, and is the most common cause of SCA among young people.
  • Long QT syndrome, an arrhythmia that causes a fast and chaotic heartbeat.
  • Wolf-Parkinson-White syndrome, which occurs when an extra electrical pathway in the heart creates a detour for blood flow resulting in the heart pumping quickly.
  • Arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia (ARVD), an inherited condition in which scar tissue replaces some of the heart muscle.

If an EKG shows positive for these or other underlying conditions that could lead to SCA, your doctor may request additional tests, recommend not participating in competitive sports or suggest procedures to address the underlying condition.

Edward-Elmhurst Health offers robust children's services.

Our Pediatric Specialty Clinics provide parents with convenient access to doctors who focus specifically on the treatment of children, including pediatric subspecialists in cardiologyBrowse our pediatric cardiologists.

Related blogs:

Young Hearts 4 Life – saving young lives since 2006

Learn more from Healthy Driven Chicago:

Five cardiac risk factors you need to know

Five ways to prevent a heart attack

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