We Need to Be Better About Recognizing Sudden Cardiac Arrest

“10-year-old dies of an apparent heart attack on Delta flight,” “High School Football Player Dies Suddenly,” “Teen Dies on the Court,”— these stories shock the community, cause people to ask questions, and are too soon forgotten. We need to be better about recognizing cardiac arrest in the young, and that starts with better cardiac arrest education. Many people do not realize the difference between cardiac arrest and myocardial infarction or “heart attack.” While a heart attack is often preceded by chest pain and other symptoms, cardiac arrest is usually not.

Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA) is a life-threatening emergency that occurs when the heart suddenly stops beating; 1 this can be due to a structural abnormality of the heart, a rhythm disturbance, or often an unknown cause.2 A heart attack usually has a different cause, occurring when the supply of blood to the heart becomes blocked, typically by a plaque or blood clot in an artery.3

Sudden Cardiac Death (SCD) is the leading cause of death in athletes during a sport.4 Delay in recognition leads to a rapid decline in survival, with a decline of survival by 10% for every 1-minute defibrillation is delayed.5 Studies show that survival can be improved if AED is applied and used within 3-5 minutes of arrest. Schools with on-site AED demonstrate survival from SCA as high as 71%.4 However, in order for proper AED use to occur the arrest must be recognized quickly.

What makes it hard to recognize sudden cardiac arrest?

  • Lack of Education on the subject— SCA is not on peoples’ radar for the young patient. Our brains are programmed to think about heart attacks involving older people clenching their chest, sweating, proclaiming pain, and not about SCA, which is much more silent. Anyone who suddenly collapses and is non-responsive to verbal stimuli should be treated as a sudden cardiac arrest until proven otherwise.5
  • SCA may present with seizure-like activity; in as many as 20% of SCA events, there will be myoclonic jerking activity such as shaking, quivering, or twitching.5 This activity may lead to observers mistaking the arrest for a seizure and not applying the right emergency protocol.
  • A victim of SCA may still be “breathing”; Agonal respirations/gasping appear like chest and abdominal movement. These breaths can be mistaken for breathing, but are ineffective to sustain life.4
  • Lack of AED’s or access to AED’s and Emergency Action Plans (EAP); some schools may not have AED’s, or they are locked after hours in an office or locations far from the athletic venue. Surveys have demonstrated that low socioeconomic status, schools with primarily black race, and rural schools are the most common barriers to AED use.6

Recently, the Parent Heart Watch has started a campaign to make the use of AED’s easier and to educate the public on their use with the campaign Call, Push, Shock. In addition, Dr. Jonathan Drezner and the NFL to educate the public on recognizing sudden cardiac arrest (Recognize, React, Rescue). These resources are helpful in sending a unified message to the public, providers and to everyone involved to help save lives.

What can we do to improve?

  • Early recognition and emergency activation – Suspect SCA in any collapsed or unresponsive athlete/person and call 911 immediately.
  • Access to early defibrillation – the goal is less than 3-5 minutes until the first shock.
  • Provide high-quality CPR and early access to advanced life support/EMS – Currently, the average time of EMS arrival is 6.1 minutes and can be longer in some communities.4 The more people trained and educated to start CPR while awaiting EMS, the better the outcomes.
  • Make sure all venues have EAP’s that encompass the above and more. An EAP should be established at any athletic venue and should be specific to the athletic venue. An effective EAP should encompass emergency communication (working with local EMS and having a detailed location/address of the venues available, including directions to access points from major roads), personnel, and equipment. They should be reviewed and practiced annually to ensure they work with mock SCA scenarios.
  • Continue to push for legislation to enforce the use of AED’s in schools. As of 2017, only 17 states required AED installation in schools, and only 5 of these offered funding for AED equipment.7

Want to learn more? Check out the Call, Push, Shock page to explore the mission and find local organizations— chances are there is a passionate person in your state or city who has been directly affected by SCA and could use your support and help!



  1. “You Can Save A Life from Sudden Cardiac Arrest.” Call, callpushshock.org/.
  2. Harmon, Kimberly G. “Incidence and Etiology of Sudden Cardiac Death in Athletes.” IOC Manual of Sports Cardiology, 2016, pp. 63–73., doi:10.1002/9781119046899.ch7.
  3. “Heart Attack.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 30 May 2018, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-attack/symptoms-causes/syc-20373106.
  4. Toresdahl, Brett, et al. “Emergency Cardiac Care in the Athletic Setting: from Schools to the Olympics.” British Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 46, no. Suppl 1, 2012, pp. i85–i89., doi:10.1136/bjsports-2012-091447.
  5. Drezner, Jonathan A., et al. “Inter Association Task Force Recommendations on Emergency Preparedness and Management of Sudden Cardiac Arrest in High School and College Athletic Programs: A Consensus Statement.” Prehospital Emergency Care, vol. 11, no. 3, 2007, pp. 253–271., doi: 10.1080/10903120701204839.Soun ds
  6. Saberian, Sepehr, et al. “Disparities Regarding Inadequate Automated External Defibrillator Training and Potential Barriers to Successful Cardiac Resuscitation in Public School Systems.” The American Journal of Cardiology, vol. 122, no. 9, 2018, pp. 1565–1569., doi:10.1016/j.amjcard.2018.07.015.
  7. Lou, Nicole. “Few States Require AEDs in Schools.” Medical News and Free CME Online, MedpageToday, 27 Mar. 2017, www.medpagetoday.com/cardiology/arrhythmias/64159.

The views, opinions and positions expressed within this blog are those of the author(s) alone and do not represent those of the American Heart Association. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them. The Early Career Voice blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.