CPR in Sports: Protecting Athletes on and off the Field

Not long ago, football player Damar Hamlin suffered from a cardiac arrest on the playing field and fell in front of thousands of viewers. CPR was administered immediately, allowing Hamlin to make a full recovery. This event showed how vital giving proper cardiopulmonary resuscitation can be.

Various statistics and organizations, such as the American Heart Association, point to the fact that over 300,000 cardiac arrest cases happen outside of a hospital. As seen from this NFL case, cardiac arrests can occur to anyone and at any time—even during athletic pursuits. Hence, knowing and using correct CPR can change the outcome in these situations.

In the following text, we’ll dive more into the connecting point between sports, cardiac arrests, and CPR—how to give CPR in sports, prevent it, and what you need to know to save lives when every second counts.

Sports & Cardiac Arrest

As you may know, cardiac arrest is when the heart stops pumping blood throughout the body. And without this oxygenated blood, the other organs in the body cannot function. This medical situation can happen due to various reasons during sports activities.

In some cases, it can be due to an underlying heart condition. Other situations also involve physical excretion that may put more strain on the heart—it can be even worse if there is an underlying heart condition—dehydration, heatstrokes, or even imbalances in the mineral in your body (also known as electrolyte imbalance).

Luckily, sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) is not a common occurrence among athletes. Subsequently, only 1 in 200,000 young athletes are estimated to suffer sudden cardiac death.

Immediate CPR to Sudden Cardiac Arrest Among Athletes

As we mentioned, if it weren’t for the quick response of the medical team and the immediate CPR administration, the result in Hamlin’s case may have been different. Even though cardiac arrest among athletes is not common, that doesn’t mean there is no need to learn this skill.

As in all cases, immediate CPR in sports, i.e., for victims of sudden cardiac arrest on the field, is crucial for several reasons. Here are some of the major ones:


      • Maintaining blood flow – Giving the full C-A-B sequence while awaiting medical professionals to arrive on the spot helps buy precious time. Remember that according to new guidelines, the old A-B-C technique is no longer deemed useful; hence, exchanged with C-A-B (chest compressions–airways–breathing).

      • Supplying the brain with oxygen – Since the heart is not pumping any blood, that impedes brain function. Using CPR immediately after noticing a sudden cardiac arrest case can help deliver the bare minimum oxygen level needed to keep the brain sustained. This also reduces the possibility of brain damage.

      • Bridge to more advanced medical care – CPR is the first of many medical steps administered to those athletes that have suffered a cardiac arrest. Essentially, this is the first level—the basis for the rest of the care. By being prompt in their response, anyone can give essential life support until the professionals arrive and carry on with other advanced medical care like the use of an AED.

    Commotio Cordis

    A rare but fatal situation that can cause cardiac arrest in athletes is commotio cordis. Considering that most sports include close contact, direct blows may happen. If such a hit lands on the chest, it may disrupt the heart’s rhythm, leading to cardiac arrest. This condition is most common in sports like hockey, tennis, lacrosse, baseball, and martial arts—rarely football or basketball.

    Commotio cordis only includes situations where the blow impacts the area just above the heart. The tricky thing with it is that it doesn’t need to be forceful or have any bruising in the area to cause arrhythmia (usually ventricular fibrillation) and lead to cardiac arrest.

    Witnessing this moment requires prompt acting and administering CPR. If possible, an AED shock is also advised so that the heart’s rhythm is brought back to its normal rate. Of course, there are also preventative measures for this medical situation, such as solid protective equipment for the chest.

    Preventative Strategies for Cardiac Arrests Among Athletes

    Administering CPR in sports—to athletes that are victims of cardiac arrest—is the aftermath. However, there are also some preventative measures that coaches, parents, teams, etc., may take so that the athletes stay safe. These include the following:

        • Medical history check – Before including an athlete in any program or team, a screening, i.e., a medical health check, is imperative. But this doesn’t include solely their history—their family medical history is also examined for any potential diseases.

        • Heat management – During hot months or places that have high temperatures during the whole year, preventing over-exertion also includes managing the heat. A key point here is keeping the athletes hydrated at all times.

        • Hydration – Even in places that do not have extreme heat, hydration is a must. Considering that an athlete’s body uses most of its water while training, keeping these water levels balanced can reduce the chances of sudden cardiac arrest.

        • Rest and recovery – It’s imperative that athletes have recovery periods between intense training sessions or competitions/matches. This will allow the heart to return to its normal rhythm and prevent exertion, increasing the chances of an SCA.

        • Emergency plans – Setting up emergency action plans can double the chances of survival during a cardiac arrest on the field. This includes having trained personnel at hand, an AED machine, clear communication protocols, etc.

      Can Chest Pads Help?

      A study in 2017 found that chest pads can help young student-athletes in the prevention of commotio cordis and sudden cardiac arrests. However, soon—after the NFL event at the beginning of 2023—this study was brought into question.

      Namely, the initial idea of playing with chest pads came after a lacrosse accident in 2000, in which Louis Accompora suffered a commotio cordis. In this case, CPR was administered, but there was no AED to contribute.

      But, considering recent incidents, some scientists have emphasized that the aforementioned study may not be valid. The primary reason for doubt is the use of pigs as test subjects, which is not enough scientific evidence to back up the theory of utilizing chest protectors on athletes.

      Yet, the fact that this preventative gear can help cannot be denied—even though it may be, depending on the type of sport. Hence, as important as precautionary measures are, many still rely on the need for CPR and AED use in cases of commotio cordis and sudden cardiac arrest.

      CPR & Sports: Knowing How to Protect Athletes

      As seen, giving CPR in a situation that involves SCA among athletes can drastically change the results. Because of that, coaches are required to take CPR and first aid courses.

      However, even bystanders can help athletes that suffer from a sudden cardiac arrest. All they need is to know the correct way to give CPR. Yet, to administer CPR in a way that would keep the victim’s heart rate steady until the emergency medical team arrives, they have to know the right sequence, pressure, administration time length, etc.

      Today there are plenty of CPR organizations that can teach you all the basics of this technique, including the use of an AED machine to double the survival odds. For those in Louisville, join the American Heart Association (AHA) local training center and learn how to provide professional CPR.

      Anyone can choose between simple CPR and CPR + First Aid classes, depending on their needs. These types of organizations have both online and in-person classes so trainees can grasp the basics of the C-A-B sequence.

      Final Words: CPR in the World of Sports

      A sudden cardiac arrest can be fatal—but it can also be a sign of some undetected cardiovascular conditions. It has been proven that administering CPR, even from bystanders, can improve survival rates among athletes experiencing SCA.

      In the world of sports, experiencing cardiac arrest may not be a common occurrence, but it is a threat nonetheless. Aside from any dire consequences, cardiac arrests among athletes can impede any potential future for them in their chosen sport.

      As a result, knowing CPR and administering it promptly, athletes can receive vital support on the field until the professionals arrive and continue the medical process off it. CPR training also includes using an AED, which together can drastically improve survival chances.

      By recognizing the importance of CPR in sports and ensuring broad training in the method, you can be prepared to offer help if the need arises.