The Unseen Risk: What every parent should know about heart disorders

Within a six-week period in 2006, two high school students in Halton Region lost their lives after suffering a sudden cardiac arrest. In both cases, the cardiac arrest occurred during or shortly after the students engaged in physical activity.

Sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) is relatively rare in children but it does claim the lives of nearly 700 young Canadians each year. Most of these deaths occur in children that have an underlying heart rhythm disorder.

Heart rhythm disorder is not one disease, but rather a group of diseases. Some diseases, such as Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM), affect the muscle structure of the heart while others such as Long QT Syndrome, affect the heart’s electrical system. All heart rhythm disorders leave the child more prone to cardiac arrest.

Many heart rhythm diseases are inherited or genetic. If your family has a history of unexplained early death, that is a warning sign. Look back several generations for deaths of relatives younger than age 35.  If you or your spouse had a history of fainting when you were younger, that is also a warning sign.

It is reported that 1 in 500 children worldwide are affected by a type of heart rhythm disorder.  What does that mean? It means that in a typical high school in Halton Region, there are two to three otherwise healthy kids living with a disorder. Majority are of unaware of their condition.

For half of the children that die from these diseases the first warning sign is death, but for the other half there could be other warning signs that occur in the days, weeks or months prior to the cardiac arrest. The most common and easy to recognize warning sign is fainting. The majority of childhood fainting spells are innocent; however, fainting can be a warning sign of an underlying heart rhythm disorder.

Fainting can be a warning sign

Fainting Episodes as a Warning Sign:
  • those that occur during or shortly after intense physical activity; these are the most worrisome
  • those triggered by emotional distress or auditory startle
  • multiple fainting episodes
  • a child with  both a personal and family history of fainting

If your child has experienced any one of these symptoms, you should visit your doctor or pediatrician. Also, if there are others in your family who died at an early age for unexplained reasons, you should seek advice from a physician that specializes in heart rhythm disorders.

Why Early Diagnosis Helps:

Two very positive things can happen if your child is diagnosed with a heart rhythm disorder:

  1. There are a number of therapies which are highly effective at reducing your child’s risk of sudden cardiac arrest.
    These include surgical options, implantable devices, pharmaceuticals and life style modification.
  2. Often one diagnosis leads to several family members being diagnosed.
    When one member of your family is diagnosed doctors will begin testing other family members including parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Again the good news is that these relatives will also begin treatment that will reduce their risk of cardiac arrest.

Sudden cardiac arrest in young people is a rare occurrence but knowing and responding to the warning signs has the potential to save hundreds of young lives each year. Children that are being treated for a heart rhythm disorder should live long and healthy lives.

About this guest blogger:

Blake Hurst has trained over 5,000 Halton Residents in CPR and proper defibrillator use. He is committed to raising awareness of the strategies that will help prevent sudden cardiac death of young people living with inherited heart rhythm disorders. You can follow Blake on twitter through @rhythmichearts.

Share your experience:
If you have any personal experience with inherited heart rhythm disorders,  please feel free to:


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