In the 42nd minute of a 2020 European Championship match in Copenhagen, 29-year-old Danish soccer player Christian Eriksen collapsed to the ground as he received a throw-in.
As the medical staff rushed to the field to administer defibrillation, teammates gathered around to shield Eriksen from the view of nearly 14,000 fans in attendance.
Prompt emergency medical attention likely saved Eriksen’s life.
Sudden cardiac arrest isn’t unique to soccer. Despite being
Read on as we explore why athletes develop cardiac arrest and what they can do to lower the risk.
It’s rare for athletes to develop cardiac arrest. Congenital heart conditions, or heart conditions present from birth, are the
Researchers believe the
- Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM): a thickening of the walls in the left ventricle. HCM is thought to be the most common cause of sudden cardiac death in athletes and affects about
1 in 500people in the general population.
- Anomalous origin of a coronary artery: an improper placement of one of the coronary arteries that supply the heart with blood.
There’s some debate whether HCM really is the most common cause.
The researchers only found definitive evidence of HCM in 8 percent of cases compared to 30 to 40 percent in previous studies.
Other heart anomalies that can contribute to sudden cardiac death include:
- arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy
- dilated cardiomyopathy, or an enlarged heart
- heart valve disorders
- congenital long QT syndrome
- catecholaminergic polymorphic ventricular tachycardia
- Wolf-Parkinson-White syndrome
- Brugada syndrome
Dilated cardiomyopathy and Brugada syndrome can also be acquired conditions.
Acquired conditions are those that develop through your life.
Other acquired conditions that can lead to cardiac arrest include:
- commotio cordis, heart damage from sudden blunt impact to the chest
- Kawasaki disease
- myocarditis, which can be due to viral infections, such as
- use of stimulants, anabolic steroids, peptide hormones, and other drugs
Signs of sudden cardiac arrest
Sudden cardiac arrest, often incorrectly referred to as a heart attack, is characterized by:
- sudden collapse
- lack of pulse
- lack of breath
- loss of consciousness
Sudden cardiac arrest often occurs without warning but may be preceded by:
If you develop any signs of a cardiac arrest, it’s critical to seek immediate medical help.
Estimates on how often athletes experience sudden cardiac arrest vary based on the definition of athlete and whether studies include cardiac events away from sport. They range anywhere from
|Risk factor||Higher risk||Lower risk|
|Sex||1 in 37,790 for males||1 in 121,593 for females|
|Race||1 in 21,491 for Black athletes||1 in 56,254 for Hispanic athletes|
1 in 68,354 for white athletes
|Sport||Men’s basketball: 1 in 8,978 |
Men’s soccer: 1 in 23,689
Men’s (American) football: 1 in 35,951
They identified 74 cases of sudden cardiac arrest with survival, and 105 that resulted in death. More than 80 percent of people were male, and the average age was
Cardiac arrest by sport
|Track and field/cross country||31 (9.4)|
|Ice hockey||8 (2.4)|
|Freestyle skiing||1 (0.3)|
|Flag football||1 (0.3)|
How to best prevent sudden cardiac arrest in athletes is still a matter of
Researchers continue to debate the implementation of screening with an electrocardiogram (ECG), as is done in some countries. An ECG is a device that measures the activity of your heart.
In Italy, the most common cause of sudden cardiac death in athletes is
Researchers are continuing to examine the potential usefulness of
Eating a balanced diet may help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, especially for older athletes. Foods that lower your risk of heart disease are also likely to support athletic performance and overall health.
Benefits of having an athletic training and defibrillator on-site
Having a certified athletic trainer and defibrillator on-site is linked to a much higher chance of survival after sudden cardiac arrest.
Careful evaluation from a medical professional is needed before you can return to sport. A study by the
In some cases, it might not be possible to safely return. Your team or institution may also disqualify you over liability concerns.
Eriksen returned to football 8 months after his sudden cardiac arrest. Doctors fitted him with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator. However, Italian medical authorities banned him from playing in Italy with his club team Inter Milan, leading him to sign with Brentford in the United Kingdom’s Premier League.
The most common cause of sudden cardiac death in young athletes is congenital heart disease. In older athletes, it’s coronary artery disease.
Sudden cardiac death is rare in athletes, and there’s still debate on how to best screen for risk factors.
If you have a known heart problem, you can talk with your doctor about whether it’s safe for you to participate in sports and whether you should undergo further testing.