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Understanding Heart Screenings for Your Young Athlete

Soccer. Baseball. Basketball. Gymnastics. If your child plans to participate in an organized sport activity, they’ll need more than just the required gear and equipment; They’ll also need a yearly physical exam. While an annual physical is fairly comprehensive, your physician may recommend additional screening for heart-related issues.

As part of your child’s sports physical exam, the doctor will likely get a detailed history of any personal or family heart conditions and conduct an exam that includes blood pressure measurements. Further screening may be needed if there is a history of chest pain, dizziness or fainting; abnormal shortness of breath or fatigue during exercise; a family history of unexpected sudden death within the family; or a history of abnormal heartbeat or heart murmur. Additional screening also may be necessary if your child is unusually tall and is experiencing heart or eye problems.

Heart Headlines

When a young athlete suddenly dies from a heart related incident, it always makes headlines and strikes fear in every parent. In reality, these incidents are extremely rare. To put it into perspective, about five million youth participate in competitive high school sports each year, not to mention the many other children, adolescents and other teens who are involved in organized sports. The chances of a teen dying from heart failure while playing sports are significantly less than those associated with other activities. For example, each year approximately 750 cases of sports- related sudden cardiac death are reported in the United States, while about 15,000 teens die in car accidents.

The Facts About Sudden Cardiac Death

Even though sudden cardiac death (SCD) is rare, it’s important to understand how and why it occurs. SCD in young athletes is mostly likely caused by a heart problem that may not have been detected before and occurs without warning. Athletes appear to be more vulnerable than other young people because of the adrenaline rush they experience while playing sports.

The most common cause of sudden cardiac death is hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy (HOCM), a birth defect that causes excessive thickening of the heart muscle and impairs blood flow. It can often be detected by an echocardiogram (ECHO) or cardiac ultrasound exam. This is a quick and easy test that takes “moving pictures” of the heart and allows doctors to determine if there is a problem such as a heart murmur or a congenital heart defect.

Many people with HCM experience no symptoms, while others may experience notable signs. Some of these signs may include:

  • Chest pain or pressure that usually occurs with exercise or physical activity
  • Shortness of breath and extreme fatigue during exercise
  • Fainting
  • Heart palpitations, described as fluttering of the heart

Talk to your child’s doctor about whether or not they should participate in sports activities. The majority of young athletes with heart conditions can participate in most, if not all, physical activities under the care and guidance of a physician.

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