Electrocardiogram Screening Can Help Save Athlete Lives

by Jodee on March 25, 2010

Being young and in good physical shape isn’t a guarantee that an athlete won’t have heart issues. About 90 young people collapse and die suddenly each year from cardiac problems. There is a cost-effective solution for this issue, though: Use electrocardiograms for screening purposes.

This strategy has been used effectively in Italy, where the Ministry of Health has screened all participants in competitive sports for almost 30 years. Careful tracking of the results has shown that the number of cardiac deaths among athletes between the ages of 14-35 decreased by 89 percent. The death rate was similar to that of the general population.

Requiring an EKG exam for competitive athletes in the United States would cost less than $90 per person. This strategy would save over two life years per 1,000 athletes screened.

Unfortunately, simply because a certain strategy is cost-effective, it doesn’t necessarily follow that funding is available to implement it. Since most heart-related deaths occur among males, it may make sense to suggest that boys and men get screened if they wish to participate in sports.

How an Electrocardiogram (ECG) Works

To get an ECG reading, the patient is asked to lie down on a table. A total of 10 electrodes are attached to his or her arms, legs and chest. The electrodes are used to pick up the electrical impulses produced by the heart. These readings are conveyed to the ECG machine, which produces a graph (known as a tracing).

The completed tracing is examined by a physician, who can get the following information from the reading:

  • Heart rate and rhythm
  • History of a prior heart attack
  • Whether the patient has coronary artery disease
  • Condition of the heart muscle and it has become abnormally thickened

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