Athletes’ Heart Condition Linked to Exercise Damage

Most athletes will put up with a lot of wear and tear for the love of the sport, but athletes in endurance sports may be pushing their bodies past the point of recovery, according to a study.

That was the conclusion of a Belgian researcher who found that the long-term and high-intensity exercise undertaken by high-level athletes in certain sports may weaken the heart, leading to a rare but potentially deadly condition in which the heart beats erratically.

Researchers have known for some time that certain athletes, like the cyclists who take part in the Tour de France, are susceptible to this condition, which is called ventricular arrhythmia.

It remains to be seen how much genetics predisposes an athlete to the problem, but exercise certainly contributes to the damage, the researchers said.

In this study, Belgian researchers compared the heart function of 22 athletes with heart disturbances to 15 athletes who did not have the condition, and a “control” group of 10 non-athletes.

All the volunteers were men between the ages of 18 and 55. Most of them were cyclists, some were runners and there was one kayaker and one soccer player.

Extensive heart testing revealed that the irregular heartbeat originated in the right chamber of their hearts in 82 percent of the athletes with ventricular arrhythmia. The structural weakness in the right side of their hearts resulted in their hearts pumping less blood out of the right chamber than in the healthier athletes.

The malfunction was subtle, but “significant and consistent,” said Professor Hein Heidbuchel, a cardiologist at University Hospital Gasthuisberg at the University of Leuven in Belgium, and the author of the paper.

Heidbuchel said the findings bolster the theory that the physical stress of high-level endurance exercise can damage the right ventricle or chamber of the heart, disrupting the normal heart rate and rhythm.

“There may be a limit to how much exercise the heart can tolerate,” he said.

Heidbuchel said that while the condition is rare, athletes should watch out for the warning signs, such as a sudden shortness of breath during exercise, or brief blackouts, and seek out the proper testing, he said.

Given that the condition can be fatal, and the underlying heart damage identified in this study is probably irreversible, the athlete should consider getting out of the sport if they are diagnosed with the defect, Heidbuchel said.

“It’s uncommon, but if you find that there is right ventricular damage, the conclusion should be that your competitive career should stop,” he said.

All of the sportsmen, some of them internationally known cyclists who had competed in the Tour de France, gave up competition after being diagnosed with heart damage during the course of this study, the cardiologist said.

The study appears in the European Heart Journal.

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