Sudden unexpected cardiac death that occurs in young people during sports participation is usually associated with previously diagnosed or undiagnosed structural or primary electrical cardiac abnormalities. Examples of such abnormalities include hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, anomalous origin of a coronary artery, arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy, and primary electrical disorders, such as congenital prolongation of the QTc interval and catecholaminergic, polymorphic ventricular tachycardia (CPVT). Sudden death due to ventricular fibrillation may also occur following a blunt, nonpenetrating blow to the chest, specifically the precordial area, in an individual with no underlying cardiac disease. This is termed commotio cordis.
Much of our understanding of the clinical and pathophysiologic aspects of commotio cordis is the result of work by N.A. Mark Estes III, MD, and Mark S. Link, MD, from the New England Cardiac Arrhythmia Center at the Tufts University and School of Medicine in Boston, Massachusetts and data derived from the US Commotio Cordis Registry (Minneapolis, Minnesota).
Relatively recent data from the registry of the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation show that commotio cordis is one of the leading causes of sudden cardiac death in young athletes, exceeded only by hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and congenital coronary artery abnormalities.
Commotio cordis typically involves young, predominantly male, athletes in whom a sudden, blunt, nonpenetrating and innocuous-appearing trauma to the anterior chest results in cardiac arrest and sudden death from ventricular fibrillation. The rate of successful resuscitation remains relatively low but is improving slowly. Although commotio cordis usually involves impact from a baseball, it has also been reported during hockey, softball, lacrosse, karate, and other sports activities in which a relatively hard and compact projectile or bodily contact caused impact to the person’s precordium. While only 216 instances have been reported to the US Commotio Cordis Registry (as of 2012),
this is probably a considerable underestimation of its true incidence since this entity still goes unrecognized in many instances and continues to be underreported.