The recent tragic deaths of London Marathon runner 30-year-old Claire Squires, Italian footballer Piermario Morosini and Norwegian Olympic swimmer Alexander Dale Oen, has drawn fresh attention to shocking heart problems that strike down seemingly fit athletes.
The case of Bolton Wanderers footballer Fabrice Muamba, who collapsed on the pitch during a recent game against Arsenal in front of television cameras last month, brought the problem graphically to the attention of the watching public.
Experts in sports cardiology, sport and exercise medicine and the wider medical community learn from these awful events, which have led to improvements in pitch side and sporting acute medical care.
They have also prompted the development of numerous practical and educational ‘sport-specific pre-hospital emergency care guidelines’ and the development of cardiac screening programmes to try to identify a range of structural and electrical cardiac conditions that can lead to SCD in sport.
Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of paramedics and a heart specialist watching the game, Muamba recovered but, says University College London sports scientist Richard Weiler, cases like his are likely to continue to crop up despite some screening programmes and the main problem is they are still poorly understood.
“Each young athletic life lost to sudden cardiac death (SCD) or blighted by a sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) is a powerful reminder that despite our growing knowledge, we still lack many answers to basic questions about these afflictions.”
One of the most obvious knowledge gaps is in the numbers. Experts say SCD is rare, affecting just a handful of people out of every 100,000, but it also appears to be more common in athletes than in the general population.
Yet this data is far from being 100% reliable as much of it is collected from media reports of high-profile sporting deaths.
There are no proper registries to collect numbers either within a specific sport or country, or cross-border and cross-discipline.
In sudden cardiac death (SCD), the heart abruptly and unexpectedly stops working. Experts describe it as an “electrical problem”, often caused by a heart rhythm disorder called ventricular fibrillation.
In sudden cardiac arrest (SCA), which was what brought Bolton Wanderers midfielder Muamba to the ground, the heart is no longer able to pump blood to the rest of the body.