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Heart Disease Health Center

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Abnormal EKG Risky for Some Athletes

In Rare Cases, Abnormal Electrocardiogram May Be Early Warning Sign of Structural Heart Problem
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Jan. 9, 2008 -- Abnormal results from electrocardiograms (EKGs) may be an early warning sign of rare heart problems in some athletes.

Italian researchers report that news in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Most athletes have strong, healthy hearts. But some have genetic, structural heart problems that can be fatal, even though the athlete has no symptoms.

Doctors from Italy's National Olympic Committee have been studying athletes' EKGs, searching for clues about those heart problems, which are called cardiomyopathies.

More than 12,000 young, elite Italian athletes got EKGs between 1979 and 2001. They were followed for nine years, on average.

During that time, 81 athletes had abnormal EKGs with no signs of structural heart problems at the time of the EKG. Only five of them developed cardiomyopathies, including one who died while training despite orders not to train or compete because of heart risks.

For comparison, no cases of cardiomyopathy developed among 229 top-notch Italian athletes who had normal EKGs during the study period.

Athletes with abnormal EKGs may need "greater diagnostic scrutiny and continued clinical surveillance," write Antonio Pelliccio, MD, and colleagues.

They add that a normal EKG "can be regarded as reasonably reliable evidence to exclude the presence of potentially lethal cardiac disease and can serve as a source of reassurance to young athletes."

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