Echocardiograms could save young athlete lives

July 3, 2012 3:07:38 PM PDT
Every year, about 100 young athletes die from cardiac arrest during or after competition.

It's generally the result of an undiagnosed congenital heart problem. But a new study says an echocardiogram might prevent the deaths.

An echocardiogram or sound wave heart exam can find the young competitors who are at risk for a lethal heart arrhythmia, or abnormal rhythm. This week's meetings of the American Society of Echocardiography offered up a study to this effect. But though the echo can find the problem, doing the test on every athlete may not be feasible or desirable.

Ten-year-old Jason lora had his heart checked with an echocardiogram. It's a test that can show congenital heart problems which may be worrisome if Jason pursues his athletic aspirations.

"At my new school, The City College Academy for the Arts, they have programs that I want to attend, mainly basketball," he said.

For Jason and other young athletes, this week's report says the echocardiogram used as a screening test may prevent cardiac arrest on the field.

It found that the echo test picked up 12 percent of 85 athletes who had previously unknown congenital heart disease.

"The heart doesn't function well and because of that it's very sensitive to arrhythmias that can cause life threatening events and sudden death," said Dr. Richards Friedman, with NY-Presbyterian.

Young athletes are under physical stress, which releases adrenaline. Adrenaline plus a congenital heart problem can trigger abnormal heart rhythms and a cardiac arrest.

But Dr. Friedman says mentally outstanding kids taking a tough math exam have just as much stress as their physically outstanding classmates on the field.

Why not do an echo on everyone? Expense is one reason. Finding false positives that may never cause a problem is another. He says instead, doctors must ask carefully about symptoms of palpitations, shortness of breath and fainting. Then do an echo.

Doctors may want to do an echocardiogram if there is a history of sudden death in a member of the family. In most cases, if a congenital heart problem is discovered, it will end an athlete's career. That may be a small price in most cases compared to losing a life on the playing field.

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