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Official Journal of the Italian Society of Angiology and Vascular Pathology
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Minerva Cardioangiologica 2008 December;56(6):659-66

language: English

The intriguing problem of atrial fibrillation in competitive athletes

Furlanello F. 1, Pedrinazzi C. 2, Inama G. 2, De Ambroggi L. 1, Cappato R. 1

1 Arrhythmia and Electrophysiology Center IRCCS Policlinico San Donato San Donato Milanese, Milan, Italy
2 Department of Cardiology Ospedale Maggiore, Crema, Italy


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Atrial fibrillation (AF) is the most frequent cause of prolonged palpitations in young competitive athletes, even including those performing elite sport activity. This arrhythmia may occasionally affect impair athletes’ ability to compete thus leading to non-eligibility at prequalification screening. Competitive sport has a significant impact on the autonomous nervous system. In fact, long-term regular intense physical training determines an increase in vagal tone leading to resting bradycardia. During physical activity, particularly in the setting of competition, a marked release of catecholamines occurs as a result of both the intense physical effort and emotional stress. Both of these adaptive phenomena may precipitate AF. Furthermore, in several athletes with AF an association with sick sinus syndrome has been found, even though the pathophysiological basis of this finding is not clear. This picture is further complicated by the increasingly intake of illicit substances, whose arrhythmogenic effect has been shown both at the ventricular and atrial levels. Moreover, the use of recreational drugs, such as amphetamines, ecstasy, alcohol, cannabinoids, cocaine and so called new drugs in clubs has dramatically increased, with several cases of drug-induced arrhythmic events. These effects are often exacerbated by the combined use of different drugs, especially in situations such as sports competitions, in which the adrenergic system is already hyperactivated. No data have been published on the efficacy of antiarrhythmic therapy in athletes with AF, but it has been reported that athletes are more predisposed to the development of pro-arrhythmic effects induced by antiarrhythmic drugs when compared to general population. Most recently, radiofrequency catheter ablation involving electrical disconnection of the pulmonary veins in athletes with AF limiting their normal training activity and participation in sports competitions has proven highly effective to restore stable sinus rhythm and enable subsequent re-eligibility.

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