Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy 101: What every student-athlete should know

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(Family Features) You may find it difficult to wrap your mind around the idea of an energetic student-athlete with a cardiac diagnosis. Heart conditions may be more often associated with older individuals, but you might be surprised to learn hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is the most common condition responsible for sudden cardiac death in young athletes. In fact, it’s the cause of 40% of sudden cardiac death cases.

It's estimated 1 in every 500 adults living in the United States has hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, according to the American Heart Association, but a significant percentage are undiagnosed. More than 80% of individuals who experience this condition show no signs or symptoms before sudden cardiac death. While sudden cardiac death is rare, it can occur during exercise or in its aftermath. That’s why it’s important for student-athletes and their loved ones to learn more about this condition and talk to a doctor about their risk.

With proper knowledge and the support of a skilled care team, it’s possible to manage hypertrophic cardiomyopathy with heart-healthy actions to prevent complications or worsening cardiovascular conditions like atrial fibrillation (a quivering or irregular heartbeat), stroke or heart failure. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy awareness and education for athletes by the American Heart Association is made possible in part by a grant from the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation.

What is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy?
Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is the most common form of inherited heart disease and can affect people of any age. It’s defined by thickening and stiffening of the walls of the heart. The heart’s chambers cannot fill up or pump blood out adequately, so the heart is unable to function normally.

There are different types of this condition. Most people have a form of the disease in which the wall that separates the two bottom chambers of the heart (the septum) becomes enlarged and restricts blood flow out of the heart (obstructive hypertrophic cardiomyopathy).

However, sometimes hypertrophic cardiomyopathy occurs without significant blocking of blood flow (nonobstructive hypertrophic cardiomyopathy). The heart’s main pumping chamber is still thickened and may become increasingly stiff, reducing the amount of blood taken in then pumped out to the body with each heartbeat.

What are possible symptoms?
Symptoms can include:

  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • heart palpitations
  • fatigue

The severity of symptoms can vary, but if you experience them or if you have a family history of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy or sudden cardiac death, it may be a good idea to speak to your doctor about whether you have this condition.

For some people, symptoms can get worse and new symptoms can appear over time, resulting in people dealing with harsher effects and a diminished ability to do the activities they love. This decrease in functions can be one of the most challenging aspects of the disease. Keeping your health care team aware of any new or changing symptoms allows them to work with you to develop a plan to manage these symptoms and reduce their impact.

How is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy diagnosed?
Medical history, family history, a physical exam and diagnostic test results all factor into a diagnosis. A common diagnostic test is an echocardiogram that assesses the thickness of the heart muscle and observes blood flow from the heart.

If anyone in your family has been diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, other heart diseases or has been told they had thick heart walls, you should share that information with your doctor and discuss the need for genetic testing. Because this condition is hereditary, first-degree relatives, which include siblings and parents, should be checked.

Learn more at heart.org/HCMStudentAthlete.

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