Heart Conditions in Young Athletes

Jason T. Bradley, MD
Cardiologist, Lankenau Heart Group

From time to time, the news reports a tragic story of a young athlete who dies suddenly during a competition or practice. Although such occurrences are extremely rare, the cause of young athletes’ sudden cardiac arrest is generally an undetected heart defect or problem with the heart’s electrical circuitry.

The most common cause of sudden death in young athletes is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a thickening of the heart muscle that makes it harder to pump blood. This genetic condition is generally asymptomatic—the first sign of a problem is often the person’s sudden death.

Because cardiac conditions and defects are often asymptomatic, they can be difficult to detect before it’s too late. In some cases, young people will experience unexplained fainting after engaging in high activity, as well as seizures, or subtler signs like shortness of breath or chest pain. These symptoms, however, are also often associated with asthma.

So what is a parent to do? All high school students are required to have a physical prior to playing sports, and if your doctor suspects an underlying issue, he or she may order an electrocardiogram (EKG), a non-invasive test that looks at the heart’s electrical activity and can detect dangerous, irregular heart rhythms. (In some countries, including Italy, all student athletes are required to have an EKG before participating in sports.)

If you have a family history of sudden cardiac death before age 35, or you are concerned about your child’s health as it relates to sports, discuss it with your doctor before they take to the field.

Join Dr. Bradley live at Lankenau’s next Wednesday Web Chat, July 24 at 7 p.m.: Athletes at All Levels & Cardiac Risk. Sign up now.

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