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Sudden Cardiac Death in Sport

Prepared by: Christine May, Senior Research Consultant, Clearinghouse for Sport
Reviewed by: Australasian Sport Information Network
Last updated: 28 October 2020
Content disclaimer: See Clearinghouse for Sport disclaimer

Unexpected death due to cardiac causes is an infrequent, but tragic, occurrence in sport. Understanding the risk factors and management practices will help frame appropriate policies and actions.

One common, although not universal definition, of Sudden Cardiac Death (SCD) is that it is an unexpected, nontraumatic, nonviolent death due to cardiac causes within 1 hour of the onset of symptoms [source: A Review of Sudden Cardiac Death in Young Athletes and Strategies for Preparticipation Cardiovascular Screening, Koester M,  Journal of Athletic Training, (2001)]. It may also be known as Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome (SADS). The most common cause of this kind of sudden death is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM).

Estimates on the risk of SCD vary greatly. These differences may be attributed to many factors that may affect the sample population or data collection and analysis, including:

  • the specificity of the sample (e.g. one sport or multiple sports);
  • gender (e.g. males appear to be at greater risk);
  • ethnic background (e.g. African-American athletes appear to be at greater risk);
  • age (e.g. college age athletes appear to be at greater risk than high school age athletes);
  • environmental conditions (e.g. average temperature, humidity, etc.)
  • different data sets, data collection methodologies, and reporting formats used.

The best way for coaches, sport science and medicine staff, or officials to deal with SCD is to stay abreast of relevant research and resources, and to prepare for potential incidences in advance.

Key areas of research

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