American football star collapses on field: Why do super-fit, young athletes suffer cardiac arrests?

The world of sports was stunned into silence after an American football star collapsed during a primetime US National Football League game.

Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin, 24, fell to the ground after colliding with an opponent during the first quarter of a match against the Cincinnati Bengals. After receiving medical aid on field for 30 minutes, including CPR, he was taken to University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where doctors say he’s in a critical condition.

The team later posted on their Twitter account that Hamlin had suffered a cardiac arrest. “His heartbeat was restored on the field and he was transferred to the UC Medical Center for further testing and treatment. He is currently sedated and listed in critical condition.”

The incident was shocking and in a rare occurrence the game was suspended too. Commentators said the fact that gameplay had stalled was a sign of the shocking and severe nature of the emergency.

This isn’t the first time a sports star has collapsed mid-game owing to a cardiac arrest. As more incidents like these come to the fore, we take a closer look at how these athletes, who are considered to be healthy, are collapsing due to weak hearts.

Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin lies on the turf after making a tackle on Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins. After getting up from the play, Hamlin collapsed and was administered CPR on the field. AP

Sports stars and their hearts

Though it may sound shocking, young and fit athletes are not immune to heart problems and there are a few reasons for that, experts say. A study by the Sports Institute at UW Medicine (University of Washington) in Seattle has found that one or two in every 100,000 active sportspersons experience sudden cardiac arrest each year. Moreover, males are at greater risk than females, and African American athletes are at greater risk than Caucasian athletes, the institute says.

In fact, studies have also shown that sudden cardiac arrest is the leading medical cause of death in athletes.

Experts have cited several reasons for top athletes having cardiac conditions — in some cases it could be genetic.

“These people can train and adapt and become extremely fit, extremely capable athletes with tremendous heart function and general physiology,” Jack Goodman, professor of cardiovascular exercise physiology at the University of Toronto, told Global News.

“But they are vulnerable at the right time with the right trigger to having this type of an electrical dysfunction that causes a serious arrhythmia that could lead to an arrest and in a fatal outcome,” he added.

Cardiologists explain that in most cases, these athletes have underlying heart abnormalities and exercise becomes the trigger. “Exercise likely acts as a trigger,” Goodman explained. “And the intensity of the exercise … may make that heart particularly vulnerable to an arrhythmia that can cause a lethal outcome.”

A recent study has revealed that one of the major causes for a cardiac arrest in athletes is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), which is a genetic condition that leads to the thickening of the heart. According to the American Heart Association, affects about one in 500 people in the general population.

Some doctors also believe that a change in the nature of the sport could also be a reason that athletes suffer cardiac arrest. Professor Sanjay Sharma, a renowned UK-based sports cardiologist had previously told the Daily Mail that the game of football itself was speeding up, putting footballers at risk.

Heart experts also note that a sports star’s lifestyle can also contribute to a heart ailment. The high pressure games can lead to high blood pressure, which can affect the heart.

Also, the amount of game an athlete plays in a given season could also contribute to the situation. The number of games a professional player plays during a season is far greater today, meaning they have to train that much harder and push their bodies and hearts to the limit.

Denmark players help Denmark’s midfielder Christian Eriksen as they call for medics after he collapsed during the UEFA EURO 2020 Group B football match between Denmark and Finland at the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen in June 2021. File image/AFP

When sports stars collapsed on field

While the instance of Hamlin suffering a cardiac arrest on the field is shocking, he isn’t the first athlete to do so.

Prior to Hamlin’s incident, Denmark’s noted football player Christian Eriksen, 29 collapsed on the pitch during Denmark’s first game of Euro 2020 (being held in 2021 owing to the COVID-19 pandemic) against Finland in Copenhagen. It was the 42nd minute of the game when he all of a sudden collapsed and players of both teams rushed to revive him. He had suffered a cardiac arrest. German doctor Jens Kleinfeld was by his side within seconds, performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). An electric shock from a defibrillator worked and Eriksen opened his eyes after 30 seconds.

While he didn’t collapse on field, Argentina and Barcelona star Sergio Aguero announced his retirement from football in 2021, a month after he was diagnosed with a heart condition.

In 2019, Real Madrid and Spain legend Iker Casillas suffered a cardiac arrest at the training ground of Porto. He survived but was sidelined for a year and retired without ever playing another professional game in 2020.

Bolton’s English midfielder Fabrice Muamba is stretched from the pitch while being treated by medical staff after collapsing during the English FA Cup quarter-final football match between Tottenham Hotspur and Bolton Wanderers at White Hart Lane in north London, England in 2012. The game was abandoned at half-time as Muamba was taken to hospital. File image/AFP

Perhaps the most shocking incident from the football field was in 2012 when Bolton Wanderers midfielder Fabrice Muamba had a cardiac arrest during a televised FA cup game between Bolton and Tottenham. The 23-year-old’s heart stopped for an outrageous 78 minutes, before he was brought back to life, thanks to 15 defibrillation shocks. While he survived, it put an end to a promising career.

While in these instances the player was resuscitated, in 2003 during a FIFA Confederations game between Cameroon and Colombia, Cameroonian defensive midfielder Marc-Vivien Foe collapsed on the pitch in Lyon and tragically passed away.

And it’s not just American football and football that has seen such instances. In April 1993, popular American basketball star Reggie Lewis passed out on the court during a match. He was able to rejoin the action, but he eventually left as he kept getting lightheaded and had trouble breathing. Lewis underwent testing, and team physicians determined that he had a potentially deadly and career-ending heart disease.

With inputs from agencies

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