Sudden Cardiac Arrest, Chest Pain & Heart Attack in Teens

Sometimes, otherwise healthy teenagers have a sudden cardiac arrest, often during physical activity. When this happens, it’s often because of an underlying — but undiagnosed — heart condition the child was born with.

It’s important to understand that cardiac arrest and heart attack aren’t the same thing. Heart attack in teens is actually very rare. A child may have chest pain, but it’s usually not related to heart disease.

What is the Difference Between Sudden Cardiac Arrest & Heart Attack?

Heart attacks (myocardial infarction) are caused by coronary artery disease. Not enough blood can get to the heart muscle because the coronary arteries are blocked. Part of the heart dies because of lack of blood.

Cardiac arrest is when your heart stops effectively pumping blood to the body. A heart attack can cause cardiac arrest. But many other things can also cause a cardiac arrest.

In young people, some forms of congenital heart disease (CHD) can cause a cardiac arrest. A person is born with CHD. By contrast, coronary artery disease is “acquired” — often through a combination of lifestyle and genetic factors.

What Causes Sudden Cardiac Arrest in Teens?

There are several types of CHD that can cause a child’s heart to go into cardiac arrest. We can diagnose and treat all of these conditions here at Lurie Children’s. But unfortunately, not all of these conditions can be diagnosed before a cardiac arrest. This is because many children have no symptoms, prior to the cardiac arrest, that would necessitate a work-up.

When we’re able to diagnose, it’s often because the condition runs in families. One family member has a cardiac episode, and through our Cardiovascular Genetics Clinic, we find the condition in other family members.

There are two major forms of CHD that can cause cardiac arrest in children.

Once we have a diagnosis, we can prevent life-threatening cardiac events. There are many treatments we can use, including medication, surgery and other less invasive procedures and implantable devices.

What Causes Chest Pain in Teens?

When children have chest pain, it’s usually not a warning sign for a heart attack (as it would be for an adult). It’s typically because of muscle pain, breathing issues (asthma or pneumonia), acid reflux or even anxiety. A panic attack can feel like a heart attack.

If your teen is complaining of chest pain, talk to your pediatrician. However, if your child is experiencing severe pain, especially with a fever, fast heart rate and/or shortness of breath, call 911.

It is possible that chest pain is a sign of an irregular heart rhythm, or arrhythmia. A far more common symptom, however, is fainting — called syncope.  

There are many causes for syncope that are unrelated to heart issues. Still, if your child has a fainting spell, talk to your doctor. Syncope with exercise is a particularly troubling symptom. You should tell your child’s doctor about this immediately.

Why Choose Lurie Children’s for Your Child’s Heart Care?

If you need to have your child evaluated for a possible heart condition, you can trust Lurie Children’s to be your partner in the journey. We’re known for having:

  • Nationally ranked pediatric heart program: We’re a top-ranked pediatric heart center by U.S.News & World Report. We treat all heart conditions, including the most complex.
  • Advanced diagnostic technology: Our cardiac imaging specialists use the latest imaging technology to spot those heart conditions which can be difficult to diagnose.
  • Dedicated cardiac team: The cardiac specialists, surgeons and psychologists on our treatment team work to make sure children and families have exactly what they need to thrive.
  • Genetic screening expertise: Diagnosing cardiac diseases via genetic screening is complicated. We excel in this area, including a strong partnership with the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Since many heart conditions linked to sudden cardiac arrest run in families, affiliation with an adult center matters.
  • Advocacy that saves children’s lives: We have a leadership role in the Citizen CPR Foundation. We’re building more HEARTSafe Communities by training citizens on CPR and advocating for more public access to AEDs

What Every Parent Should Know About Preventing Sudden Cardiac Death

We’re experts in diagnosing and treating the heart conditions that cause sudden cardiac arrest in children and teens. But everyone in the community has a role to play. Some steps you can take today:

  • Learn CPR. The Red Cross offers videos and classes.
  • Understand how AEDs work, and how to use one on a child.
  • Find out if your school has AEDs and CPR training for teachers, coaches and staff. If they don’t, advocate that they do.

Heart Center Family Resource Guide

To help prepare families for their care with Lurie Children's Heart Center, we have compiled a list of resources about treatment and recovery. Learn how to get ready for an inpatient stay or outpatient visit, and read about our support services for patients and families.

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