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New Heart Test Saves Teen Athletes

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Wednesday, August 8th, 2007 Emily Halevy | CWK Producer

“I think [the echocardiogram test] has the potential to really save lives if we find one child with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). Certainly, if you ask any of the parents who’ve had children die of HCM they all say if their child had had the scan that year, that would have been a very good thing.”

– Dr. Eduardo Montana, pediatric cardiologist

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You may have heard the tragic stories of seemingly healthy young athletes dying suddenly on the field or on the court. The cause is often an undetected heart problem. But with the help of modern medicine, doctors are finding ways to help prevent these tragedies. 

Tricia McCue is an all-around athlete.

“I’ve been doing cheerleading for two years, and I played basketball for two, and track and field — this would have been my fourth year,” Tricia says.

But just before the school year started, doctors discovered a hole in Tricia’s heart.

She was shocked. “It never crossed my mind that I’d have this.”

Doctors found the hole because Tricia had an echocardiogram – also known as a heart ultrasound – which was offered through a mobile screening program that visited her school.

 “[We are] looking for the primary causes of sudden death in teenage athletes, and that is a disease called Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy. To keep it simple, we call it HCM,” says Dr. Eduardo Montana, pediatric cardiologist.

HCM, a thickening of the heart, is the most serious condition the echocardiogram can reveal. In fact, doctors at the University of Wisconsin performed echocardiograms on 395 athletes.  Out of those athletes tested, 2 percent had major heart defects and another 14 percent had minor abnormalities.

“I think [the echocardiogram] has the potential to really save lives if we find one child with HCM,” says Montana.  “Certainly, if you ask any of the parents who’ve had children die of HCM they all say if their child had had the scan that year, that would have been a very good thing.”

Montana says not only can the test help save lives, so can comprehensive physical exams and sharing a detailed family history with your doctor.  Experts say parents should also teach their kids to listen to their bodies.

“To know if they’re light-headed, if they’re dizzy, if they’re having palpitations, chest pain, easy fatiguing out of proportion to what they normally have,” explains Montana.

Luckily, Tricia didn’t have HCM, but the test did reveal the hole in her heart, which was easily repaired by surgery.

“I was relieved that it wasn’t an enlarged heart and that there was something that could be done about it and that I’d be okay,” says Tricia. “I’m really lucky.” 

What We Need To Know

  • The most effective way to identify athletes at risk for heart disease or other physical problems is with a thorough personal and family history and medical evaluation, and referring patients with suspicious findings for specialized testing. (UCLA Health System)
  • If you restrict a person with heart problems from athletic participation, it doesn’t guarantee that the person won’t have complications from the ailment. Follow your health provider’s advice. (UCLA Health System)
  • During a comprehensive evaluation of a child, doctors typically look for anything unusual, including hypertension, heart murmurs, mitral valve prolapse, and certain problems with heart rhythms. (Dr. Paul Steingard)

Resources

  • University of Wisconsin
  • UCLA Health System

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