How Does Cardiac Arrest Happen to a Young Athlete Like Damar Hamlin?

The country is still in shock after Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin suddenly collapsed on the field during the first quarter of his team’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals Monday night. About nine minutes into the game, the 24-year-old athlete was hit during a play. He then stood up, nearly instantaneously, and fell to the ground seconds later. A tweet from the official Buffalo Bills Twitter account confirmed that Hamlin “suffered a cardiac arrest following a hit.”

Standby medical personnel quickly administered CPR to Hamlin for 10 minutes before he was placed on a stretcher and taken to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center in an ambulance, according to The New York Times. Hamlin’s heartbeat was “restored,” per the tweet from the Buffalo Bills; he is currently listed in critical condition. 

Members from both teams were understandably emotional after Hamlin collapsed, and the game was eventually postponed. “Neither coach was talking about resuming play, the players were not thinking of resuming play,” Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president for football operations said, per The New York Times. “How do you resume play after seeing such a traumatic event?” (Worth noting: The NFL quickly came under fire for how long officials took to call off the game.)

If you witnessed the incident, you probably had one major question: How does something this sudden and devastating happen to a seemingly healthy, young athlete? Ahead, experts explain the potential causes of cardiac arrest in a situation like this—and what the road to recovery may look like.

What happens during cardiac arrest?

First, it’s important to note that Hamlin’s medical history is between him and his doctors—and there’s no way to know what, exactly, trigged this incident without the input from his care team. That said, there are various established causes of cardiac arrest to be aware of, as well as a history of sudden cardiac arrest in athletes that’s worth exploring.

Cardiac arrest means the heart abruptly stopped functioning, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). It happens when the heart’s electrical system malfunctions and the heart stops doing its job of pumping blood. This is a serious medical emergency, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), as 9 out of 10 people who experience cardiac arrest outside of a hospital setting die, typically within minutes.

“When the heart stops pumping, no blood is going to the brain or body, so the victim suddenly collapses,” Jennifer Haythe, MD, assistant professor of medicine and codirector of the Women’s Center for Cardiovascular Health at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, tells SELF. In this scenario, a person may pass out, stop breathing, or lose their pulse.

The AHA says the potential causes of cardiac arrest vary greatly but can be triggered by nearly any known heart condition, like cardiomyopathy, scarring of the heart tissue, arrhythmia, heart valve disease, and electrical abnormalities, among many others. 

Half of the reported cardiac arrests in the United States actually happen in people who didn’t know they had a heart problem, per the NHLBI. In young athletes, for example, a cardiac arrest may be triggered by a congenital heart defect, which refers to a heart abnormality that developed before birth, Ronald Maag, MD, assistant professor of medicine and medical director of the Baylor Heart Clinic in Houston, tells SELF. “It could be that there was something that was missed over time,” he explains. 

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