Symptoms of Sudden Cardiac Arrest in Athletes

Does it seem like you’re hearing more stories of young, healthy people suffering cardiac arrest and sudden death during marathons? This is a question coming up more and more with patients here at Oregon Running Clinic. Is this really something runners should be concerned about?

According to a new review published in CMAJ that looked at existing research, these incidents actually remain rare occurrences, despite publicized cases of them happening: The rate of sudden cardiac arrest in athletes is just about 0.75 per 100,000 per year.

It is also more likely that athletes will experience sudden cardiac arrest at rest and not during exercise, said study author Paul Dorian, M.D., director of the division of cardiology at the University of Toronto.

Sudden cardiac arrest occurs when your heart unexpectedly stops beating—think of it as an electrical issue, while a heart attack, which usually happens when a clot blocks blood flow to the heart, is more a plumbing issue.

“In most situations, in non-athletes, cardiac arrest is triggered by a narrowing or blockage of an artery to the heart,” Dorian said. “In other words a ‘plumbing’ problem, which leads to an electrical problem—a cardiac arrest.”

But for other athletes, less is known about the causes of sudden cardiac arrest. In fact, in the review. authors listed “primary electrical disease with no specific cause identified” as the top cause of cardiac arrest in athletes under 35. Other top possibilities include genetic conditions and abnormalities.

While sudden cardiac arrest is rare for healthy athletes, it’s still important that you know the warning signs. One previous study found that of athletes who died suddenly from cardiac arrest during competition, 29 percent had previous symptoms.

Here are sudden cardiac arrest risk factors to watch for.

  • Unexpected shortness of breath during exercise

  • Chest tightness

  • Pressure, pain, or discomfort especially if it occurs during exercise or effort

  • Loss of consciousness, particularly during exercise

  • Severe and unexpected heart palpitations, or an unpleasant sensation of rapid heart beating when you do not expect it to be beating rapidly or so fast

  • Severe or sudden onset temporary dizziness, lightheadedness, or near fainting

If you experience any of these symptoms, it is important you speak with Dr. Davis as well as your primary doctor.

A healthy diet and regular exercise can certainly decrease your risk of heart issues, but its important that you have your heart checked regularly by a doctor as well.

Charlotte Spangler