Is It Just Athlete’s Heart or Something Serious?
Not all enlarged hearts are life threatening. Sometimes they’re a harmless effect of athletic training, known as “athlete’s heart.” Sports cardiology experts can tell the difference.
Every year, about 100 U.S. athletes die from sudden cardiac death. Each tragedy reminds us how important it is to identify heart problems early.
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But diagnosing potentially lethal heart diseases in athletes isn’t so simple. An enlarged heart, detected by cardiac imaging tests, could be a life-threatening medical issue, or, it could be the normal physiological effect of intense athletic training, known as “athlete’s heart.”
Sometimes it takes a sports cardiology expert to tell the difference.
Detecting (or ruling out) heart disease in a serious athlete requires a(n):
If athletes have heart disease symptoms, such as fainting, breathlessness or chest pain, sports cardiologists will evaluate whether these symptoms are benign symptoms related to the sport or something more serious.
“A careful history will often tell us whether we should worry,” says Dr. Phelan. “Occasionally advanced testing is required.” The prevalence of heart disease in athletes is very low, he notes.
When heart disease is diagnosed, it doesn’t necessarily mean the end of an athletic career.
“Detraining or quitting the sport is rarely necessary,” says Dr. Phelan. “Even athletes with a defibrillator can sometimes return to play. Sports cardiologists can discuss the pros and cons with the athlete and make a decision together.”
Many athletes are better off exercising in some capacity, even those that have heart disease or have had heart surgery, he says. That’s when a cardiac exercise physiologist, like Cleveland Clinic’s Gordon Blackburn, PhD, should design an individualized exercise program. He prescribes workouts that are safe for the athlete and effective for the sport.
“Our goal is to protect the heart, whether the patient is cleared to return to competition and training or directed toward noncompetitive activities,” Dr. Blackburn says.
It often takes an experienced sports cardiology team to help identify who should or shouldn’t continue training. An athlete’s future — and sometimes life — can depend on the right decision.