Background: The syndrome of sudden death due to low-energy trauma to the chest wall (commotio cordis) has been described in young sports participants, but the mechanism is unknown.
Methods: We developed a swine model of commotio cordis in which a low-energy impact to the chest wall was produced by a wooden object the size and weight of a regulation baseball. This projectile was thrust at a velocity of 30 miles per hour and was timed to the cardiac cycle.
Results: We first studied 18 young pigs, 6 subjected to multiple chest impacts and 12 to single impacts. Of the 10 impacts occurring within the window from 30 to 15 msec before the peak of the T wave on the electrocardiogram, 9 produced ventricular fibrillation. Ventricular fibrillation was not produced by impacts at any other time during the cardiac cycle. Of the 10 impacts sustained during the QRS complex, 4 resulted in transient complete heart block. We also studied whether the use of safety baseballs, which are softer than standard ones, would reduce the risk of arrhythmia. A total of 48 additional animals sustained up to three impacts during the T-wave window of vulnerability to ventricular fibrillation with a regulation baseball and safety baseballs of three degrees of hardness. We found that the likelihood of ventricular fibrillation was proportional to the hardness of the ball, with the softest balls associated with the lowest risk (two instances of ventricular fibrillation after 26 impacts, as compared with eight instances after 23 impacts with regulation baseballs).
Conclusions: This experimental model of commotio cordis closely resembles the clinical profile of this catastrophic event. Whether ventricular fibrillation occurred depended on the precise timing of the impact. Safety baseballs, as compared with regulation balls, may reduce the risk of commotio cordis.