Screening Athletes to Prevent Sudden Heart Attacks

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Screening Athletes to Prevent Sudden Heart Attacks

Every sports fan knows the thrill of looking forward to a new season, as media coverage heralds the opening of training camp and results from scrimmages.  Along with exciting preseason news, every sports fan has also read the sickening news of a promising young athlete unexpectedly dropping dead in the prime of his or her life.  Often, the culprit is an undiagnosed heart condition.  Since most sports programs require a physical examination to clear the athlete for sports, we ask: how did the heart condition escape the doctor’s exam?

The American Heart Association published guidelines for screening athletes for occult heart conditions in its journal called Circulation.  The article, Recommendations and Considerations in Preparticipation Screening for Cardiovascular Abnormalities in Competitive Athletes: 2007 Update, recognizes that these tragedies are occurring with increasing frequency, particularly in basketball and football.  The recommendations represent a consensus effort to prevent sudden cardiac arrest in athletes by identifying those athletes who are at risk and either fixing the problem or sidelining the athlete.

According to the article, most instances of sudden cardiac death are due to congenital abnormalities in young athletes.  Not surprisingly, in older athletes, the most likely cause of unexpected