Sudden cardiac arrest among youth is rare, but it can happen. Because young people are generally viewed as “healthy,” recent health scares involving athletes can be especially jarring.

Earlier this week, Bronny James, son of basketball legend LeBron James, suffered a sudden cardiac arrest during an off-season workout at the University of Southern California. 

More locally, an eighth grader in South Carolina went into cardiac arrest at a basketball game in February. 

Sudden cardiac arrest happens when the heartbeat changes from a normal rhythm to an abnormal rhythm, Novant Health cardiologist Dr. Bill Hammill told QCity Metro. 

Dr. Hammill said a heart attack, blockage in the coronary arteries, is a common cause of sudden cardiac arrests. Each year, more than 800,000 people in the United States have a heart attack.

Around 350,000 older adults experience sudden cardiac arrest each year in the States, according to Dr. Hammill. 

Cardiac arrest in young people is rare – it happens a few thousand times yearly in the U.S. – and is likely related to secondary issues, such as an enlarged heart or hereditary heart rhythm issues, Dr. Hammill said.

Considering Mecklenburg County’s population, one or two sudden cardiac arrests among youth are bound to happen each year, he said.

“It certainly does happen,” Dr. Hammill said. “It’s devastating when it does.” 

To prevent injuries and medical emergencies like sudden cardiac arrest, Atrium Health hosts a yearly screening event for high school athletes from across the Carolinas. At the event, students receive free health exams, including electrocardiograms (EKG) and musculoskeletal exams. 

Dr. Hammill said that what’s most important is how patients are treated, not necessarily the cause. 

And while sudden cardiac arrest is not always preventable, there are symptoms to look for and ways to stay safer. 

“Sometimes the first symptom is the only symptom is the last symptom,” Dr. Hammill said. 

Some critical indicators for young athletes include fainting during exercise, chest pain with exercise, and heart palpitations or abnormal heartbeat while exercising.  

Dr. Hammill encourages anyone around athletes to learn CPR. Every minute that goes by with it, the risk of death increases, he said. 

Defibration is also essential to reset the heartbeat into a normal rhythm. 

Hammill also encourages young athletes to be honest with their families and doctors about any possible symptoms they have experienced. 

He said that knowing your family health history is also an important aspect of prevention. 

“Those are what saves people’s lives,” Dr. Hammill said. 

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