Unexpected Sudden Death of an Athlete

High school stadium 1

It is that time of the year again.  Many teens and college athletes have hit the fields again for the fall sports season. Football, soccer, cross country and other sports will again reign the fall season. Practices will begin anew.

Right now there are many student-athletes hoping for a chance to make the team and make a difference. Who among them is really concerned about their safety? An increase in parents and medical providers is indeed voicing their concerns.

Every year there are unexpected and tragic deaths as a result of the sports season. On the same sideline is injuries – These are somewhat expected and are often tragic in their own right, but it is the unexpected side of death that concerns the heart of so many.

high school athlete

Nationally, about 7 million students play high school sports.  And according to the “National Association of State Boards of Education“.  And of those more than 20 high school students per year die from heat, heart conditions and other injuries.

This concern is not limited to high school athletes, as several college students and professional athletes have recently died as a result of playing sports.

Often many student-athletes require a physical examination prior to playing sports, but many argue that the current standards are not adequately testing for potential health risks. As in many cases – cost is the real concern.  While others contend that when no symptoms are present how can we truly know who needs further screening?

Dr. Federico Vaca, director of UC Irvine’s Center for Trauma and Injury Prevention Research stated somewhat recently “When they come in their freshman year, their heart is still growing.
How much do you screen them
.”  He clearly understands the difficulty that presents the diagnosis of student-athletes

The American Heart Association recommends cardiovascular screening for all high school student athletes.  However this does not include the more involved heart testing.  Some schools in Italy have required EKG’s for all high school athletes and they report a drop in the overall student death rate.

high school athlete screening

Causes of Sudden Death in Athletes

1.)  Cardiac Arrest
2.)  Cardiomyopathy – leading to cardiac arrest
3.)  Ventricular fibrillation – also leading to cardiac arrest
4.)  Abnormal coronary arteries – leads to cardiac arrest
5.)  Marfan Syndrome
6.)  Aortic rupture
7.)  Commotio Cordis – an injury or blow to the chest
8.)  Heat stroke
9.)  Other injuries
10.) Other

Safety Tips

–  Research and know the medical history of family members
–  Student must communicate changes in training or workouts
–  Watch out for Chest pain
–  Watch out for shortness of breath
–  EKG can be as low as $50
–  Consider options of Heart Ultrasound [echocardiogram] and stress test


–  Often no symptoms are seen
–  Chest pain
–  Shortness of breath
–  Fainting  (Syncope)
–  Racing heart
–  Fatigue


What to avoid

–  Avoid smoking
–  Avoid anabolic steroids
–  Avoid other illegal drugs
–  Avoid delay if symptoms present

TOPS program

Team of Physicians for Students

A program has been instuited in Arizona where a free physical of student athletes can be done in Glendale Arizona. Volunteers make up the majority of those who perform the testing. Then, a cardiologist from the Arizona Heart Institute reads the EKG.

Almost 2,000 students every year are seen by this program and over 16,000 since inception

Dr. Paul M. Steingard, D.O., founder of the program now known as TOPS, explained: “Traditional thinking cites the high cost of EKGs and Echocardiograms as being prohibitive. The cost of those tests can range up to $1,000, when done by private physicians. When done in mass by volunteers, there is no cost to the athlete. Every student-athlete receives an EKG, which is read by a volunteer cardiologist from the Arizona Heart Institute.”

Last year alone over 2,300 students were seen and 6 had cardiac-related issues. Another 95 had high blood pressure and 22 had other health-related medical concerns.

***  Overall Sudden deaths of student-athletes are rare but occasionally it may be something that could be prevented. Additional screening may be the answer.

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