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Br J Sports Med. 2012 Nov;46 Suppl 1:i15-21. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2012-091415.

Aetiology of sudden cardiac death in sport: a histopathologist's perspective.

Author information

  • Department of Histopathology, Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS Foundation Trust, London, UK. mary.sheppard@imperial.ac.uk


In the UK, when a young person dies suddenly, the coroner is responsible for establishing the cause of death. They will ask a consultant pathologist to carry out an autopsy in order to ascertain when, where and how that person died. Once the cause of death is established and is due to natural causes, the coroner can issue a death certificate. Importantly, the coroner is not particularly interested in the cause of death as long as it is due to natural causes, which avoids the need for an inquest (a public hearing about the death). However, if no identifiable cause is established at the initial autopsy, the coroner can refer the heart to a cardiac pathologist, since the cause of death is usually due to heart disease in most cases. Consultant histopathologists are responsible for the analysis of human tissue from both living individuals and the dead in order to make a diagnosis of disease. With recent advancements in the management protocols for routine autopsy practice and assessment following the sudden death of a young individual, this review describes the role of the consultant histopathologist in the event of a sudden death of a young athletic individual, together with the older middle-aged 'weekend warrior' athlete. It provides concise mechanisms for the main causes of sudden cardiac death (including coronary artery disease, cardiomyopathies, valve abnormalities, major vessel ruptures and electrical conduction abnormalities) based on detailed autopsy data from our specialised cardiac pathology laboratory. Finally, the review will discuss the role of the histopathologist in the event of a 'negative' autopsy.

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