Heart Screening for Young Athletes Can Save Lives

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Nearly 100 young American athletes die suddenly and unexpectedly each year due to undetected heart conditions. Several could be saved through more effective screenings suggests a two new studies published in the March 2 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine.

Current college athletic guidelines recommend a physical exam and medical history before participating in sports activities, but because many patients with heart conditions are unaware until it causes an issue, physicians recommend a more intense screening process.

Adding a 12-lead electrocardiography (ECG) to a pre-participation cardiovascular screening for college athletes improves detection of cardiac abnormalities, according to research by Dr. Aaron L. Baggish MD of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. The downside was that a number of false positives were found, but saving 2 lives for every 1000 athletes seems worth the extra effort.

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For those needing additional testing, an ultrasound scan of the heart is considered the gold standard for detecting problems.

The measure would not be an expensive proposition for college athletic programs. Dr. Matthew Wheeler of the Stanford University School of Medicine in California found that ECG screening would only add only about $89 in cost per athlete in schools that have existing screening programs, and $199 per athlete if adding a new comprehensive cardiovascular pre-participation program.

Italy introduced a mandatory screening of all athletes nearly two decades ago and has since seen a ten-fold reduction in sudden death of athletes. In separate, non-related press statement, Dr. Theodore Abraham of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine said, "If you are going to screen, it has to be comprehensive. An ECG does show you a lot, but it doesn't tell you the whole story. The advantage of a comprehensive screening is that it is holistic, rather than being pinpoint."

Most sudden deaths of young athletes, such as Chicago Bears Gaines Adams and Southern Indiana’s Jeron Lewis, are related to Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM), a thickening of the heart muscle that often goes undetected. It is estimated that 40% of all deaths on athletic playing fields are caused by HCM, according to the Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Association.

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