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Condition that may have caused Damar Hamlin's cardiac arrest more common in young athletes

The next 24 hours is critical to determining what long term effects Hamlin will face, including brain damage.

WASHINGTON — After a 24-year-old NFL player shockingly collapsed on the field after making a tackle during Monday night football, the phrase commotio cordis began popping up all over the internet. 

Buffalo Bills defensive back Damar Hamlin is in critical condition in the ICU of a Cincinnati hospital after suffering cardiac arrest. Hamlin's heartbeat was restored by medical technicians on the field, but there are still numerous unknowns about what caused the seemingly healthy man to collapse. 

“We think he took a hit to the chest that just happened to be the right impact at the right spot in his heart, at the right timing within his cardiac cycle between heartbeats, which threw his heart into a fatal heart rhythm,” said Dr. Scott Jerome, co-director of the Sports Cardiology Program at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

The potentially lethal disruption to heart rhythm that Jerome described is called commotio cordis, according to Jerome. While the condition is rare across the board-- there are around 300 recorded cases of commotio cordis -- Jerome described it as very rare in older athletes, particularly at the NFL level. The doctor said the condition is usually found in kids. 

“Because they're smaller bodies, balls are less well controlled, they're less protected,” Dr. Jerome said. “So we see a catcher gets hit in the chest or literally a player gets a ball in the chest, and then it happens to them.”

Jerome said the 12 to 24 hours after injury are critical to determining Hamlin’s long-term prognosis.

“Once they start waking them up I think the biggest thing is cognition,” Jerome said. “Did he have any cerebral damage from low oxygen to the brain? I'm sure they're doing all the heart testing, you know, while he's intubated and sedated.”

Jerome said there is potential for brain damage.

“We say three minutes without oxygen starts causing damage," Jerome said. "But I've certainly had plenty of patients that have gone longer and done quite well."

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