Give kids a sporting chance

Short stuff: Health roundup

Every season we hear stories of student athletes dying on courts and fields. With fall sports already in high gear and the winter seasons on the horizon, it’s important to know as much as possible to protect your athlete.

Dr. Joel Schwab, an associate professor of pediatrics and director of medical education in the department of pediatrics at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine, says there’s not just one factor that puts young people at risk.

“Several conditions can predispose certain student athletes to this‘sudden death’ risk,” he says. These include coronary artery anomalies, inflammation of the heart muscle, asthma and Marfan Syndrome, an inherited genetic disease in which the chemical makeup of the connective tissue (a vital component to supporting the body’s organs) isn’t normal and as a result is not as strong as it should be.

“There are 25-50 [of these‘sudden death’ incidents] in the U.S. each year,” says Schwab. But he points out there are actually more, since the numbers reflect only sanctioned events, not deaths that occur during kids’ pick-up games.

And it’s not just pre-existing conditions that lead to these incidents. Direct blows to the chest, such as when a line drive hits a pitcher, can cause sudden death.

What signs or signals should parents, teachers and coaches view as red flags?

Schwab lists a few key issues among his red flags:"I would be concerned about any loss of consciousness or fainting associated with exercise. Also, chest pain with exercise would be alarming.”

Schwab says physical exams often don’t identify kids at risk for sudden death, and it has not been shown conclusively that screening all athletes with EKGs or echocardiograms is effective.

That’s why he emphasizes the need for parents and their student athletes to have access to a thorough medical history—both the student’s and the family’s.

So if you’re the proud—but concerned—parent of a student athlete, the important things to keep in mind are that you and your child should review family health histories (filling out the student health forms required for participation in most school sports is a great opportunity to make sure you know all you need to know) and that you can easily find out whether your student’s school is prepared to handle these types of medical emergencies.

You can ask your pediatrician for more information about sudden cardiac arrest, as well as about the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations for schools’ emergency plans.

Maayan S. Heller is a freelance writer living in Chicago who covers issues in health, women’s health and fitness.

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