Common heart issues in athletes

Courtesy photo. (UTMB Galveston)

Athletes are often in prime condition health wise as they prepare for competition or participate in their respective sport.

However, this does not exclude them from cardiovascular (heart) issues, as evident with the recent cardiac event of professional football player, Damar Hamlin.

As noted by the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, common heart issues in athletes include:

  • Hypertension, or high blood pressure. This occurs in roughly 75 million adults in the U.S.. It is one of the key health factors that may lead to stroke, heart attack, heart disease and kidney disease.
  • Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). This a common, inherited cardiovascular disease that affects about one in 500 people. It is caused by a genetic mutation that occurs in the heart muscles. HCM is arguably the most common cause of sudden cardiac death in athletes in the United States. HCM is often diagnosed with an echocardiogram (an ultrasound of the heart) or a cardiac MRI. Patients with a family history of HCM may undergo genetic testing or get an echocardiogram to identify the condition. Symptoms of heart failure can occur, or one may develop a heart arrhythmia problem, such as atrial fibrillation, that can make it more likely for someone to have a stroke. Many people with HCM do not have any symptoms and can expect to have a relatively normal lifespan.
  • Commotio Cordis. This occurs when a person is struck in the chest at a specific time in the heart rhythm cycle, the heart’s electrical signal can be interrupted, resulting in the heart stopping. The blunt force that causes commotio cordis often comes from a hard object or ball hitting the chest, such as a baseball, a softball, or a hockey puck, but it can come from any type of blow. The average victim of commotio cordis is 14 years of age. Young people are at higher risk because the chest wall is less developed and transmits force more easily. Once the person is found to be unconscious, his or her heart must be assumed to have stopped and immediate treatment is needed. This involves calling 911, starting CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) with chest compressions, and retrieving the nearest AED (automated external defibrillator).
  • Athlete’s heart. This is a cardiac condition often seen in active individuals. It refers to the normal changes a heart undergoes in people who regularly participate in strenuous, prolonged exercise. This condition may result from aerobic exercise or weight training, commonly when training extends longer than one hour per day. There are usually no symptoms, so the condition is usually only found incidentally at a sports physical or doctor’s visit.

Establishing a relationship with a primary care provider or primary care sports medicine physician can often help identify a heart condition in athletes before an incident occurs. UTMB Health primary care sports medicine physician, Dr. Namita Bhardwaj emphasizes that athletes, coaches and parents get training in CPR and how to use an AED.

“CPR saves lives. You never know when you’ll need it, having this skill can prepare you for the unexpected cardiac event and save a life. Find a class with the American Heart Association, your local community center or wherever a class is offered,” Bhardwaj said.