Though it’s very rare, it’s not unheard of for young athletes to unexpectedly die of heart conditions. Here’s what to know and how to prevent this tragedy.
It’s very rare for young athletes to die from unexpected heart complications — but in exceptional cases, it does happen. For parents of young athletes, these headline-making stories can be a source of alarm. But there’s hardly reason for panic if you’re knowledgeable about the symptoms that these unusual cardiac disorders might present, and how to properly spot the difference between normal athlete’s heart and a more serious condition.
Athlete’s heart — is it dangerous?
Parents of young athletes might have heard of athlete’s heart, a condition where children participating in high-intensity sports might experience a slightly enlarged heart and a thickening of the heart’s muscular walls. But parents should note that athlete’s heart is not a seriously threatening condition, and it’s almost entirely asymptomatic. So, if your physically active child’s doctor has noticed an enlarged heart or decreased blood flow, there’s probably no need to panic.
There are, however, a few heart diseases that resemble athlete’s heart on an EKG scan but that have potentially grave consequences. Many of these conditions are congenital and hereditary, but they do not display symptoms until the heart is stressed with heavy exercise. If your child is experiencing unusual symptoms as a result of exercise, you might want to be aware of some of the most common heart problems in young athletes — and how you can take action to keep your child safe.
What are some heart problems found in young athletes?
Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM)
Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) is quite rare, but it’s the most common cause of sudden death from cardiac arrest in young people. Medical professionals may find it difficult to tell the difference between HCM and athlete’s heart from a scan, since they both involve thickening of the heart’s walls. HCM is often presaged by an irregular heartbeat, called cardiac arrhythmia, but can often go undetected.
If you have a family history of sudden cardiac arrest, and your young athlete is experiencing symptoms of HCM, ask your doctor if your child should take a brief break from athletics to monitor whether the symptoms continue.
Right ventricular dysplasia
Right ventricular dysplasia involves enlargement of the right ventricle, and often manifests itself in arrhythmias. An EKG can only go so far to distinguish between right ventricular dysplasia and athlete’s heart, but, generally, athlete’s heart affects the entire muscle and not just the right ventricle. Some studies show that an MRI can be more effective in detecting right ventricular dysplasia than a traditional EKG.
Coronary artery anomalies
Various anomalies in the coronary arteries can occur congenitally, and they can restrict blood flow to certain parts of the heart due to their unusual shape or size. If you suspect that your young athlete has a coronary artery anomaly due to unexplained fainting during sports and a family history of sudden cardiac arrest, you might want to consult your doctor about the possibility of conducting an EKG.
Other heart issues to keep in mind
Several other heart conditions have been known to cause sudden death in young athletes, though these are extremely rare. These include long QT syndrome (fast, chronic arrhythmias), Marfan’s syndrome (which increases a risk of premature aneurysm), and Brugada syndrome (which decreases the heart’s electrical function).
What are the warning signs?
The most important warning sign is a family history of unexplained sudden cardiac arrest. If you have a history of cardiac arrest in family members under age fifty, in particular, this could indicate a higher risk of congenital heart disorder. Other warning signs of heart conditions in young athletes include fainting, chest pain, and dizzy spells. If you’ve noticed all of these warning signs, talk to your doctor about the potential for a scan to assess risk level.
Should my child get screened?
Only your doctor can determine whether your young athlete is at risk of sudden cardiac arrest while playing sports. Luckily, there are plenty of screening tools that can detect with a good deal of confidence if your child is susceptible to these rare conditions. If your child is showing symptoms of a heart condition, Tri-City Cardiologists offers cardiology consulting with Phoenix’s most qualified specialists, in locations across the tri-city area. If you’re seeing the warning signs, make sure to let us know.