Athletes and Heart Conditions

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When athletes train hard, it increases the body’s need for oxygen. The heart is a critical organ that pushes blood throughout the body and delivers this essential oxygen to the muscles. Over time, intense aerobic activity can cause an athlete’s heart to change: it gets stronger and larger to manage the increased capacity that is needed.

The Risk of Sudden Cardiac Death

In the general population, an estimated 1 out of every 1000 people die of sudden cardiac arrest each year. In comparison, the estimated number of athletes that die of sudden cardiac death is reported to be between 1 in 50,000 and 1 in 80,000. So, the risk of cardiac arrest is lower among athletes than in the general population.

When cardiac death occurs, it usually happens because of problems with the heart’s electrical signaling. For example, there might be an issue with a fast heartbeat or an irregular heart rhythm. Any activity or condition that damages or strains the heart can increase the likelihood of a person experiencing sudden death from a heart condition.

Heart Conditions: A Cause of Sports-Related Deaths

Even though exercise is an essential lifestyle practice for strengthening the heart, some doctors have suggested that years of intense aerobic exercise actually increases the risk of cardiac problems.

Various types of heart conditions can contribute to health complications or even sports-related deaths in athletes of all ages. Adults are at a higher risk due to coronary artery disease, while younger athletes could be affected by arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) or cardiomyopathy (thickened heart muscle).

Other heart conditions affecting young athletes include blunt chest injuries, rare heart rhythm disorders, or congenital heart defects.

Ongoing Cardiac Evaluations and Testing for Athletes

An athlete’s heart rate is expected to increase during physical activity, but it can be challenging to identify the differences between a healthy heart and a heart disorder. The best solution is to maintain regular cardiac testing and evaluations, which increases the likelihood of catching a heart condition in the earliest stages.

If anything is detected, the medical team can recommend treatments, medications, surgery, training routines, and other interventions that might help reduce the risk of sudden death.

Also, athletes with heart conditions must always receive a “return to play” approval from their heart doctors before stepping back on the field. The medical team will use thorough testing and a customized treatment plan to minimize risks. Then, the athlete can return to their game following specific guidelines for their participation.

Regardless of an athlete’s overall health, it’s always a good idea to maintain regular medical checkups and testing to reduce the risk of serious cardiac issues in the future.

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