How Cardiac Arrest Can Claim a Young Athlete

By Kousik Krishnan, MD

The cardiac arrest death of Bears defensive end Gaines Adams may have you asking, “How can a young and fit professional athlete suddenly die of a heart-related condition?”

Sudden death in professional athletes is shocking. Professional athletes are particularly thought of as healthy having been the best at what they do since childhood and having the ability to withstand the rigors of training and making it to highest level of their sport. They are seemingly invincible.

In the U.S., the most common cause of sudden death in athletes is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). This is often referred to as an “enlarged heart.” The pathology in this condition is an abnormal thickening of the heart muscle which can potentially lead to an electrical instability, referred to as cardiac arrest. When cardiac arrest occurs, if a normal rhythm is not restored promptly, death often occurs.

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy can span the spectrum of asymptomatic to severely symptomatic. Some clues could be chest pain, shortness of breath, unexplained dizzy spells or passing out. A family history can also be important.

Screening for this condition can be difficult if there are no symptoms, family history or ECG abnormalities to suggest the diagnosis. An echocardiogram (heart ultrasound) can help to make the diagnosis. However, in large, tall individuals the enlarged heart may be a normal finding due to being a highly trained athlete or may just be normal for the individual’s size. Continue reading