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Minerva Cardioangiologica 2020 Oct 15

DOI: 10.23736/S0026-4725.20.05331-1

Copyright © 2020 EDIZIONI MINERVA MEDICA

language: English

Electrocardiographic interpretation in athletes

Mark ABELA 1, 2, 3 , Sanjay SHARMA 3

1 Department of Cardiology, Mater Dei Hospital, Msida, Malta; 2 Malta Medical School, University of Malta, Malta; 3 Cardiology Clinical Academic Group, St George’s University of London, St. George's University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, London, UK


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Participation in regular exercise of moderate intensity is associated with a plethora of systemic benefits, including a reduction in risk factors for coronary atherosclerosis; however, intensive exercise may paradoxically culminate in sudden cardiac arrest among individuals harbouring arrhythmogenic substrates. The precise mechanism for arrhythmogenesis is likely multifactorial, however, surges in catecholamines, electrolyte shifts, acid-base disturbances, increased core temperature and demand myocardial ischaemia are potential contributors. Although most deaths occur in middle aged and older males with atherosclerotic coronary artery disease, a significant proportion also affect young athletes with inherited or congenital cardiac abnormalities. The impact of such catastrophes on society, particularly when a young high profile athlete is affected could be considered a justified reason for identifying individuals who may be at risk. Given the rarity of deaths in young athletes, only the simplest screening test, such as the 12-lead ECG may be considered to be cost effective. The ECG is effective for detecting serious electrical diseases in young athletes such as congenital electrical accessory pathways and ion channel diseases but can also identify athletes with potential life threatening structural diseases such as hypertrophic and arrhythmogenic cardiomyopathy. One of the concerns about ECG screening is that regular intensive exercise results in several physiological alterations in cardiac structure and function that are reflected on the athlete’s ECG. Sinus bradycardia, first-degree atrioventricular block, incomplete right bundle branch block, minor J-point elevation and large QRS voltages are common. Conversely, some repolarisation anomalies affecting the ST segment, T waves and QT interval may overlap with patterns observed in patients with serious cardiac diseases. The situation is complicated further because age, sex and ethnicity of the athletes also influence the ECG and there is a risk that erroneous interpretation could have serious consequences. This review will describe the normal electrical patterns of the “athlete’s heart” and provide insights into differentiation physiological electrical patterns from those observed in serious cardiac disease.


KEY WORDS: Sudden Cardiac Death; ECG; Screening; Athlete’s Heart; Exercise

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