Structural cardiac disease diagnosed by
echocardiography in asymptomatic young male soccer players: implications for
pre-participation screening.

Rizzo M, Spataro A,
Cecchetelli C, Quaranta F, Livrieri S, Sperandii F, Cifra B, Borrione P,
Pigozzi F. Br J Sports Med. 2012 Apr;46(5):371-3. Epub 2011 Jul 26.

One of the main goals of
pre-participation screening (PPS) is to identify unknown cardiac alterations in
asymptomatic athletes with the intent to prevent sudden death in athletes.  In Italy, it is mandatory by law that all
children entering competitive activity must receive screening that includes
physical examination and electrocardiogram (ECG), which is usually first done
between the ages of 8 to 12 years of age. 
This mandatory screening has been shown to be effective in preventing
sudden cardiac death in athletes, but some structural cardiac alterations are
still missed.  The aim of this study was
to evaluate the usefulness of adding echocardiography to the PPS to detect
structural cardiac abnormalities.  In
this study, 3100 male soccer players between the ages of 6 and 17 years were
evaluated with the conventional Italian PPS with ECG and physical examination with
the addition of a complete echocardiogram. 
The physical examination and ECG were performed and interpreted by 3
sports medicine physicians, while the echocardiograms were performed by 3
cardiologists and 2 different sports medicine physicians.  All examinations were then reviewed by a
cardiologist with extensive experience in pediatric cardiology.  A total of 3044 echocardiograms were found to
be normal, while 56 (1.8%) found a structural cardiac lesion.  Of the 56 hearts with structural cardiac
lesions, 2 (0.06%) were hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), 24 (0.77%) were
bicuspid aortic valve, 10 (0.32%) were mitral valve prolapse, and 20 (0.65%)
were atrial septal defects.

Cardiac screening in athletes is
a hot topic in the sports medicine community right now for the United
States.  Italy has mandated ECG screening
for several years and this question of whether or not to include echocardiogram
is the next step for them.  Screening
protocols vary amongst college and professional teams with some performing ECG
on all athletes.  An even smaller
proportion of teams include an echocardiogram. 
Some professional teams even require a treadmill stress test.  From the results of this study, the authors
suggest adding echocardiogram to the initial PPS only.  There might be infrastructure to incorporate
this in Italy, but at this point in the United States, this would be very
difficult to implement.  Their ideal
solution would be to have the sports medicine physicians performing the
echocardiograms themselves.  One of the
arguments against ECG screening in the United States is that there are too many
false positives due to inadequate training in interpreting an athlete’s ECG [see Hill et al review]. Adding echocardiogram training would
be even more difficult.  Another point to
look at is the significance of the 56 abnormal echocardiograms they found.  If the echocardiogram can detect
abnormalities not seen on ECG or history/physical, and these abnormalities are
clinically significant, the echocardiogram would be an acceptable addition to
the already required ECG.  The 2 patients
that were found to have HCM on echocardiogram had ECG abnormalities that would
have required a subsequent echocardiogram.  With the findings of a bicuspid aortic valve, according
to the 36th Bethesda Conference Recommendations, restrictions are only placed
with aortic root dilation greater than 40mm, which likely would only be able to
be assessed by echocardiogram if asymptomatic. 
With mitral valve prolapse and atrial septal defects, most of the
significant cases that would require restrictions with play would have required
an echocardiogram due to findings in history and physical if one wasn’t
mandatory.  With these recommendations in
mind, the echocardiogram findings were only significant for 2 athletes in this
study (0.065%).  The underlying question
for cardiac screening is how much of a risk is society willing to take and
invest in, if the statistical benefit is low, but the end result of not
preventing a sudden death is devastating. What are your thoughts on ECG or
echocardiogram screening in athletes? 
What are your screening protocols at your program?

Written by: Kris Fayock, MD and
Marc Harwood, MD
Reviewed by: Jeffrey Driban

Related Posts:

Rizzo, M., Spataro, A., Cecchetelli, C., Quaranta, F., Livrieri, S., Sperandii, F., Cifra, B., Borrione, P., & Pigozzi, F. (2011). Structural cardiac disease diagnosed by echocardiography in asymptomatic young male soccer players: implications for pre-participation screening British Journal of Sports Medicine, 46 (5), 371-373 DOI: 10.1136/bjsm.2011.085696