We hear the tragic stories every year, but each one still seems shocking: a child collapses on the sports field, seemingly out of nowhere. While these cases may seem rare, about 20 children in the United States die each day from sudden cardiac arrest, according to the Heart Rhythm Society.
Two-thirds of these deaths occur in kids and teens without any prior indication of heart disease. However, a simple screening can usually pick up the subtle signs of a heart rhythm disorder.
Revealing abnormal rhythms
Sunita Ferns, MD, a pediatric cardiac electrophysiologist and director of Pediatric and Adult Congenital Cardiac Electrophysiology at Wolfson Children’s Hospital, said electrocardiograms (EKGs) can detect potentially life-threatening conditions. An EKG is a test that uses small electrode patches on the chest, arm and legs to record the electrical activity of the heart and check the pattern of the heartbeat.
In many other parts of the world, EKGs are mandatory for middle or high school students. While student-athletes in the United States are required to get sports physicals, most states do not require EKGs.
Dr. Ferns said the U.S. has yet to implement this requirement nationwide in part due to cost. EKGs themselves only cost around $20 to perform, but an abnormal result may lead to a cardiology consult followed by additional testing. But Dr. Ferns cautioned the cost of a potential abnormal result should not deter parents from seeking out EKGs for their school-aged children.
“When the EKG is interpreted by a qualified expert, you won’t be sent down a rabbit hole of unnecessary testing,” she said.
Not just for athletes
Dr. Ferns recommended parents talk to their child’s pediatrician about EKG options near them, even if the child doesn’t play sports.
“Don’t ignore your cello player or video gamer – they should be screened, too,” she said. “You can’t put a value on your child's life."
Sheldon Hill, executive director of SafeBeat, a national initiative that establishes local and regional preventive heart screenings, said most heart defects are not typically detected by the traditional yearly exam or sports physical, but a noninvasive heart screening that includes an EKG can help identify those most at risk.
A study published in Heart Rhythm found adding an EKG to a child's standard physical is six times more likely to detect a cardiovascular condition associated with sudden cardiac arrest or death.
“With sudden cardiac arrest being the No. 1 cause of death in student-athletes and students on school campuses, it is imperative that preventive heart screenings are made available,” Hill said. “We must be proactive in protecting our youth from this silent killer and not wait till they have symptoms because in many cases, the first symptom is the fatal collapse.”
The pediatric cardiology, cardiac intensive care and heart surgery teams with the Wolfson Children’s C. Herman and Mary Virginia Terry Heart Institute treat a full range of pediatric cardiac conditions, from heart rhythm disorders to defects present at birth. To learn more, call 904.202.8550.