Echoes for Athletes

Sudden cardiac death in athletes may be prevented by a further heart test

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Though sudden cardiac arrest in normal healthy athletes is rare, it still happens. What if one more test could help spot heart problems before they start?

A recent study did partial heart sonograms on teen athletes to check for cardiac abnormalities. Rates of abnormalities were 12 percent in teens with otherwise normal physical exams.

"Ask your doctor about heart screening tests."

Michelle Grenier, MD, physician at the Cincinnati Children’s Heart Institute, was part of a small study to investigate the best screening methods for sudden death in athletes.

As of right now, most athletes must past a physical examination in order to participate in athletics. Some programs even go so far as to take a family history and take an electrocardiogram (EKG) to check for heart problems.

Dr. Grenier’s team suggested taking things a step further and also taking an echocardiography, or an echo.

An echo is an ultrasound of the heart, so there is an actual picture produced; an EKG just shows whether or not the heart rate is regular or disrupted.

The function of the cardiac valves can be better assessed with an echo, which makes it a more thorough test for sudden cardiac arrest. Both tests are non-invasive.

For the study, they gave 85 teen athletes a physical exam, a health questionnaire, an EKG and a modified echo that was only 15 images and took nine minutes total.

Of the participants, 10 had abnormal echoes and were referred to a cardiologist for a full echo. Each of the 10 had perfectly normal health history, EKG and physical exams.

Dr. Grenier said, “EKG is a good tool, but may not be sensitive enough to catch problems that could lead to sudden death.”

“We found that an abbreviated echo is a fiscally responsible addition that will yield useful information when screening student athletes for structural heart disease and cardiomyopathies—heart muscle diseases that are the major cause of sudden death in athletes.”

“The cost effectiveness and impact on reducing the rate of sudden cardiac death aren’t yet known, but the impact on quality of life and reassurance of cardiac health during exercise is priceless.”

The study data was presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Echocardiography on July 1st.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
July 23, 2012
Last Updated:
February 12, 2013