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Football leads the way in screening athletes hearts

December 16, 2013
The English Football Association brought together an impressive list of expert cardiologists to speak at its FA Cardiac Masterclass, held in mid December. One of those speaking was Consultant Cardiologist Dr Amanda Varnava, on the FA cardiac advisory panel and a consultant who works in the Cardiac Team here at The Physicians' Clinic. Dr Varnava looked in detail at the published evidence that has been done into the prevalance of sudden cardiac death in athletes and presented some of the theories explaining why sudden death happens during sport. She also discussed what is known about factors that make it more likely that athletes will suffer a major cardiac event and what strategies can influence their survival.

Some shocking statistics

Some of the studies looking at sudden death in young athletes have shown that 12 fit and healthy people under 35 die in the UK every week. Around 4 out of 5 of them have never shown symptoms before the event.

Is screening available?

“The UK does not yet have a a policy of screening athletes before they participate in sport at national level, however individuals may consider this,” says Dr Varnava. Screening is advised if
  • A young athlete shows any symptoms of dizziness, chest pains, palpitations or collapse at any time but particularly when exercising.
  • A young athlete has a family history of early cardiac disease or sudden death.
“Even so, many young people who participate in sport who don't have these issues elect to get screened, especially if engaging in very vigorous sport or exercise. Screening involves having an electrocardiogram (ECG), and an echocardiogram (ultrasound scan of the heart) and a review by a cardiologist. Both of these cardiac screening procedures are available at The Physicians' Clinic,” adds Dr Varnava.

The benefits of screening

Only a small proportion of young athletes tested – around 4% - will need specialist cardiac tests such as exercise tests and MRI scans. Only one in 300 will then be found to have a serious underlying heart condition but screening can highlight a condition that is potentially treatable, so saving many young lives. In Italy, where cardiac screening has been mandatory for all young people participating in any organised sports events since 1982, the rate of sudden cardiac deaths in young athletes has fallen by 89%.  
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