By Chris Woolston, M.S.
What is athletic heart syndrome?
Athletic heart syndrome is a heart condition that may occur in people who exercise or train for more than an hour a day, most days of the week. Athletic heart syndrome isn't necessarily bad for you -- if you're an athlete. And it's not what makes young athletes expire in mid-court. While it does lead to structural changes in the heart, a person with the condition usually doesn't notice any symptoms. Athletic heart syndrome doesn't require treatment and is important to diagnose only to rule out heart problems that are serious.
Like any other muscle, the heart gets stronger with exercise. Endurance exercises such as jogging, swimming, and cycling can make the organ bigger, allowing it to pump more blood with every beat. Short, intense workouts such as weight lifting further increase the pumping power by thickening the walls of the heart.
Just as body builders sculpt their abs and biceps into highly unusual shapes, many hard-core, competitive athletes develop extraordinary hearts. Not only is the heart extra large and thick, it also may produce some irregular rhythms (arrhythmia). A person with athletic heart syndrome may also have a markedly slow resting heart rate, in the range of 35 to 50 beats a minute. In addition, electrical impulses can take strange routes across the heart, causing abnormal readings on an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG). Together, these changes produced by exercise are called athletic heart syndrome.
Is athletic heart syndrome dangerous?
An enlarged heart, arrhythmia, and unusual ECG readings would all be signs of serious trouble for the average person. In fact, the rhythms and ECG readings associated with athletic heart syndrome often mimic life-threatening disorders. But athletic heart syndrome itself is harmless. The "abnormal" changes in the athlete's heart are actually a testament to the body's ability to adapt.
If an athlete has symptoms of chest pain, reports irregular beats, or has passed out, he or she should get a medical exam to pinpoint the problem. Your doctor may want to run extra tests to determine whether the symptoms are a normal sign of your body's ability to adapt to training, or whether there's some abnormality in your heart. These tests may include an electrocardiogram, sonogram (a picture of the heart using sound waves), or another type of test.
Of course, some athletes really do have heart trouble. Occasionally, seemingly healthy young basketball or football players drop dead in the middle of a game or a practice. In almost every case, doctors trace the death to an unsuspected condition, such as congenital heart disease, but one that has nothing to do with athletic heart syndrome.
How is athletic heart syndrome treated?
Since athletic heart syndrome is harmless, there's no reason to treat it unless you experience regular light-headedness, chest pains, or you lose consciousness. If you really want a "normal" heart again, all you have to do is stop exercising. Soon, your heart, along with the rest of your body, will sag back into its former shape. But why not keep everything extra strong and healthy for a while? You should be proud of your athletic body, heart included.
Maron, BJ et al. The Heart of Trained Athletes: cardiac remodeling and risks of sports, including sudden death. Circulation, Oct.10, 2006.
Bryan, Greg et al. Athletic Heart Syndrome. Medical Problems. Vol.11, Number 2. April 1992, pp. 259-267.
Drezner, Jonathan A. Sudden cardiac death in young athletes. Postgraduate Medicine, October 2000.
Merck Manual. Athletic Heart Syndrome. November 2005. http://www.merck.com/mmpe/sec07/ch082/ch082c.html
Last Updated: March 11, 2013
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