Sudden Death Syndrome and Rowing - Should All Young Athletes be Screened?

When browsing through some new publications today I came across one that lead me to consider an even more significant issue - Sudden Death in apparently highly trained athletes.

The article that first sent me on this track does not address the issue of sudden death at all I must say clearly. This month in the Journal of the American Society of Echocardiography a study titled Myocardial Adaptation to Short Term High Intensity Exercise in Highly Trained Athletes was published out of the Harvard Medical School and the Massachucetts General Hospital. The authors screened the hearts of 17 participants from the 2004 CRASH B World Indoor Championshipss, before and after the event. The findings are too technical for all but the very well trained in medicine and cardiac physiology but to put it simply - the heart is affected by short term intense exercise in even highly trained athletes.

We often fall off the erg with a very clear understanding of the pain we experience. The burn in every muscle in the body is obvious and our respiration rate seems uncontrollable, even leading a few to the oxygen mask. But - do you ever consider how your heart feels about it? If your legs give out you cannot stand - but there is recovery eventually. If the heart gives out?

Over the last few years we have seen reports of the sudden deaths of highly trained athletes - basketball players in their prime on the court, football players, and yes, even rowers. The reasons are diverse and complicated and I would never want to trivialize them by suggesting that I am capable of summarizing them in a short blog post. But the reminder that the most important muscle in our body is clearly affected by a 2000 m erg test was still a sobering thought for me today.

It brought to mind something else I came across a few days ago - a report that all children in Italy now have their hearts screened before engaging in a sports program! It also notes that the European Society of Cardiology recommends that all young athletes be tested. What do they mean? A simple trip to the doctor as is suggested in most countries? Yes. But they also suggest a 12-lead electrocardiogram (ECG)!

Does this seem excessive? perhaps expensive? Consider this: since begining this program Italians have seen an 85% decrease in cases of sudden death in young athletes. The cost is mandated to be about $40 per child.

The statement that usually seems so trivial: "please consult a physician before engaging in an exercise program" has a lot more meaning for me now.

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