Certain types of video games have been cited as a “precipitant” that may cause children with undiagnosed heart conditions to pass out, according to a recent paper that also describes extreme instances where death has occurred. The researchers behind the study indicate that the issue may be more widespread than previously believed and represents an immediate threat to children worldwide.
“Video games may represent a serious risk to some children with arrhythmic conditions; they might be lethal in patients with predisposing, but often previously unrecognized arrhythmic conditions,” said the study’s lead investigator Claire M. Lawley, MBBS, Ph.D., The Heart Centre for Children, Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network, Sydney, Australia. “Children who suddenly lose consciousness while electronic gaming should be assessed by a heart specialist as this could be the first sign of a serious heart problem.”
Video Games Previously Thought Safe
This is particularly bad news for parents concerned with their child’s safety, who may have believed that indoor activities like playing video games represented a safer alternative to outdoor sports.
Published in the journal Heart Rhythm, the research found that some types of video games can exacerbate existing heart conditions as much as physical activity and, in some cases, even reveal previously undiagnosed conditions, resulting in the child passing out completely during gameplay. In extreme cases, children who became too excited or animated during gameplay died from a cardiac event.
“We already know that some children have heart conditions that can put them at risk when playing competitive sports,” said study co-investigator Christian Turner, MBBS, The Heart Centre for Children, Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network, Sydney, Australia, “but we were shocked to discover that some patients were having life-threatening blackouts during video gaming.”
ANALYSIS FINDS DISTURBING PATTERN
To better understand this phenomenon, the researchers looked at years of existing literature before reaching out to fellow researchers. This effort identified 22 specific cases of children losing consciousness while gaming; in some cases, the children died of this cardiovascular event.
The press release announcing their results states that “multi-player war gaming was the most frequent trigger.”
Follow-up analysis of these cases found that the children who passed out while playing war games had pre-existing heart rhythm conditions, some of which had not been previously diagnosed. Further analysis revealed that 63% of the children had “potentially relevant genetic variants” associated with common heart rhythm disorders. Notably, these types of variants are often passed down by parents, meaning that the diagnosis of a child led to the parent or other family members seeking out medical testing to see if they also had a heart rhythm disorder.
In the children who passed out, researchers determined the most likely inciting factor was something called “adrenergic stimulation.” In layman’s terms, this means that the children got too excited during gameplay, and the resulting influx of adrenaline caused the pre-existing heart rhythm disorder to trigger.
“At the time of the cardiac incidents, many of the patients were in excited states,” the press release explains, “having just won or lost games or were engaging in conflict with companions.”
In these overly excited states, the child’s arrhythmic heart finds it difficult to move blood to the brain, resulting in the loss of consciousness. The researchers said their results were somewhat surprising, given the previously prevalent attitude that gaming alone would not be enough to trigger a cardiac event.
“Video gaming was something I previously thought would be an alternative ‘safe activity,’” said Turner. “This is a really important discovery. We need to ensure everyone knows how important it is to get checked out when someone has had a blacking out episode in these circumstances.”
THE PROBLEM MAY BE MORE PREVALENT THAN PREVIOUSLY THOUGHT
The researchers also point out that the problem may be more prevalent than previously believed.
“Having looked after children with heart rhythm problems for more than 25 years, I was staggered to see how widespread this emerging presentation is and to find that a number of children had even died from it,” said study co-investigator Jonathan Skinner, MBChB, MD, also from Sydney.
“All of the collaborators are keen to publicize this phenomenon so our colleagues across the globe can recognize it and protect these children and their families,” added Skinner.
This attitude was echoed by the study’s lead author, Dr. Lawley.
“Families and healthcare teams should think about safety precautions around electronic gaming in children who have a condition where dangerous fast heart rhythms are a risk.”
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