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Athletes and their Hearts: What the Primary Care Physician Should Recognize


Dr. Marina Abdel Malak

is a Family Medicine Resident at the University of Toronto. She graduated and completed her Bachelor of Science in Nursing and went on to study Medicine. She has a passion for medical education, patient empowerment, and increasing awareness about the relationship between mental, emotional, and physical health.


Abstract: Physicians will undoubtedly follow athletic patients in their practice, and must therefore be aware of the cardiac adaptations that occur in these patients. Athletic heart syndrome (AHS) is a term used to describe the physiologic adaptation (leading to cardiac hypertrophy and/or dilation) that the heart undergoes in response to intense physical activity. Although these are adaptive responses, physicians need to ensure that these changes are not due to pathological causes such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, other genetic or congenital disorders, etc. To do so, physicians must take a through history from the athlete (including family history), conduct a physical exam, and order investigations (such as ECGs, an echocardiograph, etc.) as appropriate. If a pathologic cause is not identified and AHS is noted to be the sole cause of these changes, the athlete should still be counselled on how to safely participate in physical activity.
Key Words: Athletes, cardiovascular care, sports medicine, primary care, screening.
Athletic heart syndrome (AHS) is a physiologic adaptation hypertrophy and/or dilation of the heart that allows for increased stroke volume, decreased heart rate, and increased blood flow and oxygen delivery
The hypertrophy and/or dilation that occurs in AHS can mimic serious illnesses that must be ruled out
To differentiate between AHS and pathological causes of AHS, the physician should take a history and conduct a physical exam. Echocardiography and an ECG are also important
A family history of sudden cardiac death (SCD) is a 'red flag' that must be investigated further
Inquire and investigate for symptoms such as syncope, shortness of breath, connective tissue changes, lab abnormalities, etc. It is important to keep the differential diagnosis broad to ensure a serious cardiovascular condition isn't missed
An echocardiogram should be ordered to assess cardiac function and look for structural changes in the heart
When other causes have been ruled out, AHS may be diagnosed. Although this is not inherently dangerous in itself, all athletes engaging in strenuous activity require counselling and advice around warming up, pacing activity, etc.
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