“He is a 29-year-old person who has been fighting for his life,” Professor Sanjay Sharma, a cardiologist and chairman of the expert committee on cardiology of the Football Association of England, explained. “Now we must try to find what actually happened.”
Subjected to complex scans
Eriksen will now undergo complex heart scans to detect subtle sequelae or abnormalities, something that normal controls of the hearts of professional footballers have not detected, Professor Sharma noted.
They look for anything suspicious in the function and structure of the heart. However, despite the best efforts of physicians, examinations are not 100% guarantee that existing problems can be found.
“These are conditions that don’t always show up in a teenager or someone between the ages of 16 and 25,” says Professor Sharma. “These may not begin to manifest until well into the late 20s or early 30s.”
Sometimes the abnormalities only occur when footballers are in the game, or they could be linked to another disease that may have stressed the heart. In case the problems can be identified, some can be remedied or treated, but others are irreversible or incurable.
Cardiac arrest, as its name implies, occurs when the heart suddenly stops pumping blood through the body, depleting the brain of oxygen and causing the individual to lose consciousness and stop breathing. It is different from a heart attack or infarction, which occurs when the blood supply to the myocardium is cut off, many times due to a blockage in the coronary arteries.
One of the most common causes of cardiac arrest is an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia), which can be fatal, according to the British Heart Foundation (BHF). Other causes include cardiomyopathy – a disease of the heart muscle (myocardium) that affects its size, shape, or thickness, which can be inherited – and acute myocarditis, which is inflammation of the myocardium.
Christian Eriksen is not the only footballer to have suffered a cardiac arrest. In 2012, player Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the court and his heart stopped for 78 minutes. Marc-Vivien Foe died during a match for his Cameroonian national team against Colombia at the age of 28, while former England defender Ugo Ehiogu, then head coach of the Tottenham Hotspurs team, died in 2017 at the age of 44.
“Extreme exercise puts athletes at greater risk because they stress their hearts more, and that increases the chances of causing a problem,” says Dr. Zafar Iqbal, director of sports medicine at Crystal Palace soccer club. “But these are very unusual incidents,” he adds.
Every week in the UK, 12 people under the age of 35 die of cardiac arrest. According to the specialized publication The Lancet, in 2018 sudden cardiac arrest was the third leading cause of death in industrialized countries, with more than 700,000 deaths in Europe and the United States.
Soccer players’ hearts tend to be larger and work more efficiently than other people’s, putting them in a low-risk group for having others problems such as cardiovascular disease or blocked arteries, which occur in people who smoke or have a poor diet. But if the heart is under increased stress from dehydration, heat, or a recent illness, that can have an impact.
“Every second counts”
In the UK, 30,000 cardiac arrests occur outside a hospital each year, requiring emergency resuscitation, with only one person in 10 surviving. Dr. Iqbal says it was crucial that Eriksen was given immediate cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), followed by an automated external defibrillator (AED), which is a technique that we should all know how to do. “Every minute that passes reduces the chances of survival by 10%,” he says.
Would you know how to use a defibrillator if someone goes into cardiac arrest next to you?
In some cases, applying CPR can more than double the chance of saving someone’s life. “Every second counts when someone goes into cardiac arrest, the more of us who know how to do CPR, the more lives can be saved,” says Dr. Sanya Babu-Narayan, specialist cardiologist and deputy medical director of the BHF.
Defibrillators are commonly found in workplaces and public places such as airports, shopping malls, and community centers. Anyone can use them and the experts emphasize that there is no way to misuse them. A defibrillator will only deliver an electric shock if necessary, after automatically assessing the person’s heart rhythm.