Whether you watched it happen, saw it, read it, or just heard about it, the cardiac event that felled Damar Hamlin was – and is – just plain scary. As of this writing, the 24-year Buffalo Bills safety is recovering at home, after being hospitalized since suffering cardiac arrest during the January 2 Monday Night Football game versus the Bengals.
While Hamlin was resuscitated and whisked from the field; worry, tears, and prayers quickly rippled from the sidelines, to the stands, to around the world. As his condition improved and the news cycle churned, “what” and “how” were common questions.
What was so unique about that seemingly routine football play? How could something like that happen to an athlete at the pinnacle of their sport? And, could it happen to me?
Few among us will play professional football, but most of us appreciate the potential risk of physical injury players are subject to.
There are potentially several possible causes for Hamlin’s cardiac arrest, a term most of us are familiar with. But many experts are suggesting he experienced a rare phenomenon called commotio cordis, when the chest is hit at just the right time to cause a potentially deadly disruption in the heart’s rhythm.
“You know about it, you read about it, it’s on board exams, but it’s not something you regularly encounter because it is so very rare,” said Dr. Keith Anderson, a Novant Health Family Medicine and Sports Medicine Physician, and Medical Director for the Novant Health Charlotte Marathon.
Research from the American Heart Association state that only 10 to 20 cases are reported each year. Most cases involve adolescents; few reported victims are over 20 years old.
“There’s probably not a genetic predisposition for an occurrence like this,” added Anderson, “and I don’t believe one person is more susceptible than another, unless they’re involved in activities that involve high velocity, but even then it’s a very freak thing to happen.”
Anderson pointed to incidences at little league parks that eventually led to AED devices (defibrillators) being standard equipment at ballparks. Anderson suggests those are more likely to save the life of a parent or grandparent in the stands rather than a player experiencing commotio cordis. Or, presumably healthy people – like runner and author Jim Fixx* – who died of a heart attack after his morning run.
“There are countless reasons to be active,” finished Anderson. “There aren’t many not to.”
“I tell all of my patients, the information and research are overwhelmingly clear that regular exercise, like running, is proven to reduce the incidences of heart attack, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. Not to mention the mental and emotional benefits, the reduced risk of depression, dementia, and Alzheimer’s.”
Few among us will play professional football, but most of us appreciate the potential risk of physical injury players are subject to on a regular basis. When we updated this story for publishing, the Bills had left it up to Hamlin as to when he’ll return to the team facility.
Although our lives and livelihood aren’t necessarily tied to our ability to run; injury, illness, or setbacks may affect our ability to participate in our primary activity. Anderson recommended having a plan B, C, D, or whatever it takes to remain physically active. (Spoken like a true multisport athlete.) For us runners, having a side sport like swimming, cycling, weightlifting, etc., can actually ward off injury and make us better runners, to boot. More on that later…
And if you’re worried whether something like this could happen to you? Anderson suggested looking beyond the headlines and into the details.
“If the most recent incidences or examples that are being cited are from years ago, it should give you an idea that the condition or opportunity is pretty rare.”
If you have questions about your own risk factors, or your heart health in general, talk to your doctor. Or, find a remarkable Novant Health physician here: https://www.novanthealth.org/pf/
*It has been well-studied that Fixx had underlying genetic conditions and other risk factors that led to his heart attack.