Cardiac screening for professional athletes

Nurse giving cardiogram We support targeted expert assessment of families where there is a high risk of an inherited cardiac disease, or where there has been a sudden unexplained death.

Sudden death in young adults and athletes is usually caused by ventricular fibrillation, a chaotic heart rhythm disturbance that causes the heart to stop pumping, known as a cardiac arrest.

This condition is fatal unless cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) – rescue breaths and chest compressions which help to keep the circulation going – is applied to the person straight away.

There are several conditions that can cause sudden death in young athletes – with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy being the most common condition. However, there are a number of even more rare genetic conditions that predispose an individual to ventricular fibrillation.

While sudden death in athletes is rare, it is two to four times more common in athletes than in non-athletes, between 1 in 50,000 and 1 in 100,000 athletes die due to the condition each year.

High profile cases where athletes have suffered cardiac arrests, such as Fabrice Muamba in 2012, have often led to calls that all athletes should be regularly screened to detect anomalies in the heart that could trigger a cardiac arrest in the future.

At present we are not calling for a publicly-funded screening programme for all professional athletes, as screening is not yet precise enough to accurately predict all cases at risk of sudden cardiac death. Misleading screening results can have potentially damaging consequences for healthy athletes and their families.

In the future, we believe that screening will become more accurate so that a combination of tests that measure the electrical activity of the heart and genetic testing can be used to screen all athletes.

For more information, please read our policy statement or contact [email protected].