student athlete heart problems

You’ve probably heard at least one story about a student athlete who went into cardiac arrest on the court or field, or a young runner who collapsed during a marathon. This can be shocking, because we often think that younger people are in perfect health, and not at risk for serious medical problems.

Each year, a small number of student athletes and young adults die suddenly from heart-related conditions. Many have no symptoms, or very few symptoms, before it happens. This doesn’t mean you should panic, but it is important to learn about your family history and know how to spot signs of heart problems.

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Causes & Risks for Young Adults and Student Athletes

In some people, vigorous exercise — like the kind you’d find at an athletic practice or in a competition – can trigger a condition that showed no symptoms before. According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), sudden death from a heart condition affects one in 40,000 student athletes. It is the leading cause of all sudden deaths that happen to college athletes during exercise, training, and competition.

Heart Problems or Conditions in Young Adults and Student Athletes

Some causes of heart problems in student athletes and young adults can include:

  • Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a type of heart muscle disease that makes the walls of your heart stiff or thick and less able to pump enough blood to meet your body’s needs
  • Problems with your coronary arteries
  • Long QT syndrome, a heart rhythm problem that causes fast, chaotic heartbeats

Family history plays a big part in your risks. If you had a family member die suddenly because of a heart-related problem before the age of 50, talk to your doctor about your risks.

Symptoms of Heart Problems

In some cases, heart problems have no symptoms, or the symptoms can be very mild. Symptoms can include:

  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue, or feeling very tired
  • A fast or irregular heartbeat
  • Weakness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fainting during activity

Staying Safe

If you’re an athlete, you’ll need to undergo a medical exam to take part in sports. This exam might not be enough to diagnose a heart condition, so talk to your doctor about your family history and symptoms. Your doctor may order other tests to make sure your heart is healthy enough for sports.

If you have a heart condition, talk to your doctor about what is right for you. Some conditions may make competitive sports off-limits, but your doctor can help you find safe, healthy options for staying active. Learn more by visiting the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute online.

About Heart and Vascular Institute

The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine. We strive to provide the most advanced, cutting-edge care for our patients, treating both common and complex conditions. We also offer services that seek to improve the health of our communities, including heart screenings, free clinics, and heart health education. Find an expert near you.