Protecting Our Teen Athletes – ECG Screening Saves Lives

Gabby Douglas, Jordan Wieber and McKayla Maroney from this year’s US Olympic team are truly amazing athletes, captivating to watch. They are 16 and 17 years old. It’s hard to imagine that any one of these could have an underlying, perhaps lethal heart problem. It’s equally hard to believe that any of our teenagers could.

Yet every year, a hand full of high school athletes across the country suffers sudden cardiac arrest. One huge difference between our Olympic athletes and our ‘normal’ teenage athletes is that the Olympians have undergone thorough and complete physicals including ECG’s.

In researching this I found a variety of red flags including that national testing standard for teenage athletes exists but is often not followed and often ECG’s are not included due to expense. I also read of one area where local EMS is used to conduct the ECG which is then read remotely by a cardiologist. This is one way to overcome the expense and it just required asking.

I also discovered that 44 states require screening but the nature of the screening is all over the place and that many doctors simply don’t know to or include ECG’s.

It is hard to define the exact number of teens and families this impacts each year- one article suggests as many as 2000 a year. The underlying etiology is almost completely invisible. A couple of histories that may be relevant include a history of fainting by the teenager and a history of sudden cardiac arrest in family members under 50 years old. Even without these, every teen athlete should be properly screened.

Another reason that this is called invisible is that a teen may attend every practice, participate in game after game, go full out with no signs or consequences and then… sudden cardiac arrest.

The timing is now as the Olympics wind down, middle and high schools all across the country are getting ready to start which means the new athletic season. Parents need to assure that their school is following national standards for screening. Look to cardiologists within the community and the parent group as well. Ask your EMS agency to participate.

Even though most schools are required by law to have EMS and physicians attend all football games, they often are not at other events. Schools MUST have AED’s at all sporting events- even when EMS is there. AED’s and EMS need to be close to the action. Often EMS and the AED are off on the side lines. It may seem close but the reality is it may take minutes to get to the patients side. Coaches, trainers, physicians, teachers etc should all know the new hands-only CPR.

Preventing a sports related sudden cardiac arrest is the best approach. But be prepared for those rare times when sudden cardiac arrest does occur.

In researching this piece I found two relevant sites both based on personal loss:

About the Author

Jim is a transportation safety expert with more than 40 years in both the emergency medical services and the school bus industries. Jim is a former member of the PedSafe Expert team and is proud to have been one of the original contributors to more than 13 years ago.


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