The Heart of an Athlete

By: Shaun Setty, M.D., medical director, Pediatric & Adult Cardiac Surgery Program, Pediatric Heart Center, Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital Long Beach

The news has been filled with heartbreaking stories of young athletes dying during the middle of a sporting event. While many assume these children are suffering from other medical conditions, the majority of these children are dying from an undiagnosed cardiac defect, such as an enlarged heart causing an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia) when stressed. This abnormal heart rhythm causes the heart to stop pumping blood and causes them to collapse. It is labeled sudden cardiac death.

Congenital heart defects are malformations of blood vessels or the heart structure that occurs during fetal development prior to birth. Depending on the defect, symptoms can appear right away or they may not manifest until a child participates in sports. In some cases, symptoms may not present until adulthood. Some of the more common signs and symptoms of congenital heart defects include:

  • Heart murmurs
    • Heart murmurs are commonly heard during annual check-ups with your pediatrician or during a sports physical. If your pediatrician hears a heart murmur and is concerned, an ultrasound of your child’s heart may be ordered to see if there is an underlying heart defect.
  • Increased Work of breathing
    • If your child is constantly breathing hard with limited activity, that can be warning sign.
  • Blue skin or lips
    • In children, if their skin starts to turn blue it’s a sign called cyanosis. This occurs because the ability to have a normal oxygen level is compromised by the heart defect and their skin, nails or lips can turn blue, especially when crying.
  • Extreme fatigue
    • If your child gets tired very quickly or easily, or their hearts constantly race during physical activity,
      this could be a sign that their heart can’t maintain the ability to meet their body’s needs.
  • Swelling in the legs, abdomen or areas around the eyes
    • If your child suffers from consistent swelling in these areas this could be a sign that their right heart isn’t pumping efficiently. Be sure to educate yourself and your young athletes on potential signs and symptoms of a congenital heart defect. Children may be nervous to tell their coach in fear of not being able to play the sports they love. Encourage them to talk with you if they are experiencing any health concerns during sports and make sure they see their physician for an annual sports physical.

Knowing the signs and symptoms and getting annual check-ups can help catch a congenital heart defect before it becomes a more serious issue for your little athletes. Contact the comprehensive Pediatric Heart Center at Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital Long Beach at (855) 999-MCH1 (6241).



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