What Happened to Damar Hamlin and How Is It Different Than Heart Attack?
By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder
When 24-year-old NFL player Damar Hamlin collapsed after a collision during a recent game and was motionless on the field as medical staff tended to him, I think I speak for many when I say this was one of the most shocking and terrifying events I have ever witnessed in sports history.
Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest, the leading medical cause of death in young athletes. This is not the same as having a heart attack or experiencing heart failure.
Let’s educate ourselves about these three issues.
- Cardiac Arrest
First, you have to understand that your heart is essentially one big electrical system.
“The human heart is an engine that has to work 24/7 to keep you alive, and it has to be reliable and effective,” according to Cleveland Clinic.
“To do this, it relies on a specialized network of cells called the cardiac conduction system. It’s also known as your heart’s electrical system.”
So when cardiac arrest occurs, there is a malfunction within this electrical system which leads to the heart abruptly stopping. The heart is unable to pump blood to critical organs such as the brain and lungs. If the victim of a cardiac arrest does not receive treatment right away, death can occur within minutes.
“Cardiac arrest may be reversed if CPR is performed and a defibrillator shocks the heart and restores a normal heart rhythm within a few minutes,” reports the American Heart Association (AHA).
The staff treating Hamlin was pretty remarkable. It is also important to understand that cardiac arrest often occurs in people who have never been diagnosed with heart disease.
- Heart Attack
Although heart attack and cardiac arrest are used interchangeably quite often, they are two very different issues. Heart attacks are a blockage issue as opposed to an electrical issue.
“Heart attacks are caused by a blockage that stops blood flow to the heart. A heart attack refers to death of heart muscle tissue due to the loss of blood supply. It's a ‘circulation’ problem,” (AHA).
This circulation problem is usually the result of unhealthy lifestyle decisions such as being sedentary, having a processed foods diet and being overweight or obese.
What I think is confusing to people is that a heart attack can cause cardiac arrest.
“Heart attacks can increase the risk for cardiac arrest because heart attacks can alter electrical signals in the heart,” (John Hopkins Medicine).
- Heart Failure
The name of this heart issue is perhaps the most confusing, because when we think of failure we tend to think of something not working at all. With heart failure, this is not exactly the case. Think of it as “heart struggle.”
“Heart failure is a term used to describe a heart that cannot keep up with its workload. The body may not get the oxygen it needs,” according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
Heart failure is a chronic and progressive issue, and, like heart attack, usually occurs due to unhealthy lifestyle habits and having other existing health issues such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and hypertension.
Fortunately, Damar Hamlin’s condition has muched improved. According to the latest news report, his breathing tube was removed and he is able to speak.
There are still many unknowns as to why Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest, but heart experts have their theories.
“While there are several potential causes for Hamlin's cardiac arrest, cardiologists suggested that a rare phenomenon called ‘commotio cordis’ was to blame,” according to this NBC News report.
Commotio cordis occurs when blunt force trauma to the chest causes an electrical malfunction that leads to cardiac arrest.
"It's not about how hard of a hit it was. It's actually about the timing of when the blow happens," said Dr. Comilla Sasson, who was referenced in the report from NBC.
NBC reports, “Normally, the heart pumps oxygen-rich blood throughout the body about every second. There is a rhythm to the process, keeping the blood flowing at a healthy pace. But every time the heart beats, there is a tiny moment — less than a fifth of a second — that makes it vulnerable to the force of a projectile, such as a hockey puck or a baseball, that can lead to a chaotic and potentially deadly heart rhythm. It is in this exact moment, experts say, that a blow to the chest in the exact right place can launch an otherwise healthy person into cardiac arrest.”
So, this makes it sound as if what happened to Damar Hamlin is pretty rare. And maybe it is, however, as a mother to an athletic son not much older than Hamlin, I can’t say that I would want my son playing football because of the serious hits and tackles these players take.
As I mentioned earlier, cardiac arrest is said to be the leading medical cause of death in athletes. This is not the first time I have discussed this issue. Back in 2017, college basketball player Tyvoris Solomon survived a cardiac arrest.
Again, there are still so many unknowns. When you hear of young athletes dying from heart attack or cardiac arrest, it could also be due to having a congenital heart issue (something they are born with).
One cardiologist who gives her perspective on Hamlin’s incident in this Medpage Today article does not believe commotio cordis was the cause.
“There's lots of speculation about what could have caused this. The most common reason somebody has a cardiac arrest is that they have an underlying cardiac condition: either coronary artery disease, which is less likely in a young person, or that they have an underlying, unsuspected cardiomyopathy. Cardiomyopathy is a problem with the muscle of the heart and one of the most common reasons why somebody has a cardiac arrest -- a young person with unsuspected heart disease -- is a condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.”
Tests are still being done on Hamlin to determine the cause. Hopefully, this terrifying event will somehow lead to providing more protection for professional athletes. Honestly, I do not know what the exact solution is, however, I think parents can be proactive from the start. Do absolutely everything to make sure your child’s heart is in top condition as soon as they express interest in sports. If you have a child who wants to play football, talk to your child’s doctor about your concerns. Sometimes heart conditions go undiagnosed and without symptoms.Prioritize heart health.
As far as being proactive about heart attack and heart failure, I cannot stress enough how crucial it is to lead a healthy lifestyle. Heart disease is the leading cause of death of both American men and women.
The usual suggestions for good heart health are maintaining a healthy weight, getting appropriate physical activity and eating a diet rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory foods, like broccoli, strawberries and other fruits and vegetables.
However, we need to go even further and determine whether our bodies are reaping all the benefits from these good practices. For example, being physically active and eating "well" does not ensure that you are properly absorbing the right balance of nutrients your body needs to keep you healthy. And when you do not absorb the right balance of nutrients, you increase your risk of having health problems, like hypertension, fatigue, depression, sleeplessness and heart disease.
It is also important to be aware of the important role certain minerals, like magnesium and potassium, play in keeping your heart healthy. You can test to see if you are nutritionally balanced by requesting a comprehensive nutrition test. Depending on your results, you may need to supplement per the advice of your doctor or a competent healthcare professional.
For additional information on cardiac arrest and how you can be proactive about heart health, check out this pH Labs blog.
Damar Hamlin is in our thoughts and we continue to hope for a progressive recovery.
Take care of your hearts, and, as always, enjoy your healthy life!
Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide medical advice. Please consult with your doctor or another competent healthcare practitioner to get specific medical advice for your situation.
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