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Shocking Heart Deaths: Why They Happen

Sudden cardiac arrest isn't the same as a heart attack.

What to Do continued...

Sports will increase stress on a vulnerable heart, so such symptoms tend to occur during or right after exercise.

Never ignore symptoms. Lawless recalls one high school athlete who went to the school nurse 16 times to complain of chest pain, but no one took his concerns seriously. "He then died from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy during sports," she says.

Don't forget: Young athletes don't always volunteer information when they feel unwell. "They're warriors. They want to stay in the game and show that they're 100% fit and that they can do the job," Lawless says.

But parents need to ask. "Be gentle with them and if something doesn't seem right to you -- if they get winded easily or they're clutching their chest -- make sure you have a conversation with them," Lawless says.

Even after a diagnosis, some athletes insist on playing. Lawless encountered one high school basketball player diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy after blacking out a couple of times on the court. Still, he wanted to play in college. "It takes a lot to convince people that when they have these conditions, they can't be playing these very high-intensity sports," Lawless says.

The same goes for adults. Any possible signs of heart trouble should not be ignored. Although symptoms with exertion in adults are unlikely to be due to these rare heart conditions, they may be due to coronary artery disease and should still be reported to your doctor so they can be evaluated.

Push for access to automated external defibrillators (AEDs).

These should be available at school and all sporting events and practices.

"There's absolutely no reason not to have them -- no good reason, in my mind," Lawless says.

AEDs are also available at some workplaces and public buildings. You don't have to be a doctor to use them -- they come with instructions. Once attached to the victim, they will diagnose and treat rhythm abnormalities automatically.

If you're intimidated by the idea of using an AED -- or want to be more prepared and also learn how to perform CPR -- the American Heart Association and Red Cross are two national groups that provide training.

People worry that defibrillators will require maintenance and increase liability, Lawless says, but the machines have been proven to save lives. "We know they work," Mosesso says.

Reviewed on March 03, 2014

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