Sudden deaths of young competitive athletes are highly visible events that have a substantial effect on families and communities. Recent attention has focused predominantly on cardiovascular causes, and less on traumatic organ damage.


To define the clinical profile, epidemiology, and frequency of trauma-related deaths in young US athletes.


We analyzed the 30-year US National Registry of Sudden Death in Young Athletes (1980–2009) by using systematic identification and tracking strategies.


Of 1827 deaths of athletes aged 21 years or younger, 261 (14%) were caused by trauma-related injuries, usually involving the head and/or neck (mean: 16 ± 2 years; 90% male) in 22 sports. The highest number of events in a single year was 16 (1986), with an average of 9 per year throughout 30 years. The mortality rate was 0.11 in 100 000 participations (95% confidence interval: 0.08–0.15). The largest number of deaths was in football (148 [57%]), including 17 high school athletes who sustained concussions shortly before fatal head trauma (“second-impact syndrome”). Football deaths were more frequent in defensive players, although the single most common position involved was running back (61% of offensive players).


In a large community-based national registry, sudden deaths caused by blunt trauma in young athletes aged 21 years or younger were relatively uncommon with 16 or fewer per year, about fourfold less than cardiovascular deaths. These fatalities were most frequent in football, and an important proportion of deaths after head blows in high school football were associated with a recent history of symptomatic concussion.

You do not currently have access to this content.