Echocardiograms can save athletes’ lives

Chicago Bears’ defensive end Gaines Adams died in January of this year. Despite being in excellent physical condition, he was the victim of a potentially deadly heart condition known as Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM).

HCM refers to abnormal enlargement of the heart muscle. It is an inherited disorder affecting one in every 500 people. Typical symptoms are brought on during exercise and include:

• Shortness of breath
• Chest pain
• Loss of consciousness
• Dizziness
• Fatigue
• Heart palpitations

Unfortunately, the first sign of HCM may be sudden death, as in the case of Adams. HCM accounts for 26 percent of all cases of sudden death in athletes.

The dilemma is that an enlarged heart is not uncommon in athletes. One of the benefits of intense training is that the heart muscle increases in size, allowing it to pump more blood with less effort. That is why most athletes have lower heart rates than the average person.

The definitive way of resolving this dilemma is by performing an echocardiogram. This test uses ultrasound technology to image the heart’s chambers and valves while measuring the volume of blood being pumped.

While cost is not an issue at the professional and collegiate levels, it is a tremendous obstacle for the millions of high school and youth sports athletes.

Norwich cardiologist Dr. John Foley, a member of the Backus Hospital Medical Staff, recommends a thorough pre-participation physical evaluation for every child partaking in a sports activity.

“Physicians performing these examinations should have a low threshold for ordering an ECG or echocardiogram when they suspect a problem,” said Foley.

Cost should not be an issue when dealing with a life-threatening problem like HCM.

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