Epidemiological studies have identified associations between time of day and risk of sudden cardiac death. The marked peak in the occurrence of sudden cardiac death after awakening suggests that the disease is triggered by changes that occur during this time period. Increased sympathetic stimulation is a likely cause of such triggering. In the light of the circadian variation of sudden cardiac death and the evidence linking physical activity or mental stress (both associated with activation of the sympathetic nervous system) to the disease, the role of potential triggering events should be investigated. Controlled studies are needed to determine the relative risk of activities that may trigger sudden cardiac death. Since such studies must rely on witnesses (or resuscitated patients), data quality must be closely scrutinized, and studies using case-control and case-crossover designs are needed. The epidemiological and pathophysiological data reviewed in the present article suggest a number of pathways through which activities may trigger sudden cardiac death. Different extrinsic stimuli may cause similar physiological changes that subsequently lead to acute pathological events, a decrease in the ventricular fibrillation threshold through a direct myocardial effect, or a harmful effect on the conduction system. Myocardial ischemia induced by plaque rupture and thrombosis may lead directly to myocardial electric instability. The presence of chronic structural abnormalities of the myocardial tissue or the conduction system may further lower the threshold for electric instability and ventricular fibrillation.
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