Getting to the heart of the matter:

why are the UK's young sportsmen still at risk

So February is National Heart Month in the UK. The focus will mostly be on heart attacks amongst older people. But according to the charity CRY (Cardiac Risk in the Young) at least 12 young people a week die suddenly and unexpectedly of heart abnormalities.

The main cause is something that is often referred to as Sudden Death Syndrome – which is a lot easier to say than the real name Hypertropic Obstructive Cardiomyopathy. But hey Doctor Wellgood is all about getting health right so we’ll call it that – or HOCM for short. If you’re interested in the medical facts and detail click on the link.

player being stretchered off the pitch

In America, every high school screens young atheletes before they are allowed to play sports.

Elsewhere things are different. The Italians instituted a screening programme (known as Pre-Participation Physical Evaluations or PPE) for young footballers as early as 1971. Italian law even requires that every athlete has an annual ‘Fitness Certificate’. Organising this is the responsibility of your club or school.

In America HOCM kills around 100 young football and basketball stars a year. All high schools require a PPE before they let you play organized sports. This basically involves listening to the heart and lungs, examining the musculoskeletal system (your body!) and asking about family history and symptoms. If anything abnormal shows up in the PPE you then have an ECG (electro cardiogram) to provide more detail.

graphic of getting to the heart of the matter

Technically when Fabrice hit the ground he was dead. Amazingly his brain wasn’t affected.

The most high profile case of HOCM in the past 12 months was Fabrice Muamba, the now retired Bolton, Birmingham and Arsenal midfielder who collapsed when playing for The Trotters in an FA Cup game against Spurs in March last year. He was incredibly lucky to survive – he had a headache, double vision and then collapsed. Technically when he hit the ground he was dead. They reckon his heart stopped for over of an hour.

Fabrice was helped by the fact that a leading heart specialist leaped out of the crowd to help him. Actually they tried all the normal routes to resuscitation – adrenalin, massage, a defibrillator – and nothing worked. Then, on the operating table, doctors gave electrical stimulus and his heart started beating again as suddenly as it had stopped. Amazingly his brain wasn’t affected.

In Fabrice’s case the best people were on the job at the right place at the right time. Other young athletes are not so lucky. Quite simply ‘sporty youngsters’ stress their hearts the most. In the UK we probably don’t really know how many young adults die of HOCM. ‘Sudden Death’ is often reported as natural causes. As a nation, we’re not doing much about preventing it.

American footballers

You can pay to get yourself checked for the price of a friday night out.

The experts reckon anybody who shows up with a problem is one of the lucky ones. You may need to stop playing sport, or just do something less strenuous, but you’re not likely to die of it. In Europe both the European College of Cardiology and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recommend resting electrocardiograms for all young athletes before they are allowed to compete. So why is the UK so out of line with its thinking?

Naturally there is a cost involved and in good old cash-strapped Britain things that cost dosh get put on the back-burner. However it’s only those young athletes who really work their bodies extra hard that are most at risk. Some sports, such as rugby, do offer cardiac screening to elite young players.

Otherwise you have to need to sort out your own screening. The charity mentioned above, called CRY, offers subsidised screenings around the UK for £35 for young people aged 15 or older. CRY may possibly have the most uncool websites in the world –
www.c-r-y.org.uk – but if you’re really out there at the performance end of a physical sport you can get yourself checked out for the price of a Friday night out.

NB: It’s important to mention that it’s not only guys who suffer from HOCM. Female athletes also die from it, although it is more common amongst guys.

For more information about National Heart Month check out the British Heart Foundation website www.bhf.org.uk – the video clip of uber-gorgeous Mollie King from The Saturdays might make your heart beat a little bit faster.