The Cardiovascular PPE

One of the more popular articles in our November 2015 CJSM has been “Limitations of Current AHA Guidelines and Proposal of New Guidelines for the Preparticipation Examination of Athletes,” from a group of authors who are in the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine at Stanford University.  This is also one of the studies that have been picked by the Editor-in-chief to be freely available, and so if you click on that link you can read not just the abstract, but the study itself.

The authors set out “To examine the prevalence of athletes who screen positive with the preparticipation examination guidelines from the American Heart Association, the AHA 12-elements, in combination with 3 screening electrocardiogram (ECG) criteria.”  

The topic of screening to prevent sudden cardiac death (SCD) in athletes, in particular young athletes, is a perennial ‘hot button’ issue in our field — we’ve written about the issue here in the blog, and we have published several studies on the subject in the journal.  As most readers of the blog will know, in the USA (in contradistinction to Europe, Japan, Israel and elsewhere), there  is no recommendation for inclusion of an ECG in PPE screening.

There are many interesting aspects to the Stanford study.  The main outcome measures in the screen of 1596 high school and college athletes were i) the 8 personal and family history questions from the AHA 12-elements; and ii) ECGs using three separate criteria for interpretation: Seattle criteria, Stanford criteria, and European Society of Cardiology (ESC) criteria.  The different criteria had different rates of abnormal ECGs, but what was most concerning was the nearly 25% of athletes who screened ‘positive’ using AHA questions.

The authors conclude, “In a patient population without any adverse cardiovascular events, the currently recommended AHA 12-elements have an unacceptably high rate of false positives. Newer screening guidelines are needed, with fewer false positives and evidence-based updates.”

What do you think?  Take the poll, and let us know!



Transitions: November in the USA.

Really?  Can it be that November is here?

I just covered my last high school football game of the fall, a loss in the playoffs. A season which began in the heat and humidity of August [with its attendant muscle cramps and concerns of exertional heat illness & exercise-associated hyponatremia] is now over, and injuries sustained on wrestling mats and in basketball gymnasia are beginning to show up in my clinic.  Before you know it, the skiiers and snowboarders will be filling out the waiting room.

November also brings with it the publication of our last CJSM of 2015, and it is a good one.  We have profiled two offerings in particular, both of which currently are freely available on line:  original research looking at potential limitations of American Heart Association recommendations for pre-participation cardiac screening in youth athletes; and a provocative editorial [and just right for the change of seasons] arguing for adult autonomy in deciding whether or not to wear helmets when skiing.

Both subjects are among the more controversial in sports medicine.  Whether or not to consider pre-participation screening with ECG when taking care of our younger athletes–well, that’s a question whose answer can vary depending on what side of the Atlantic one is on, or what part of the United States you may live in.  It’s a question whose answers may lie in much of the research we publish in our journal, with luminaries such as Jonathan Drezner and William Roberts weighing in.

Whenever we publish research or commentary on the question of mandatory personal protective equipment, I sometimes feel as if we have entered the ‘blood sport’ arena of sports medicine.  This issue’s editorial  on the ‘Ethics of Head Protection While Skiing’ has already generated some buzz on our twitter feed. Two years ago, we published the Canadian Academy of Sport and Exercise Medicine (CASEM) Position Statement on the Mandatory Use of Bicycle Helmets, and our social media feeds erupted.  I have never seen so much discussion on the blog site.

There is much more to be read carefully in this November 2015 issue.  A very interesting piece of original research, from one of our more prolific authors (Dr. Irfan Asif), looks at the potential psychological stressors of undergoing pre-participation cardiovascular screening.  As a pediatric sports medicine specialist, I’ll be reading with great interest a study on the potential prognostic implications of post-injury amnesia in pediatric and adolescent concussed athletes–lead author Johna Register-Mihalik continues to make major contributions to our understanding of that injury in that population.

So, enjoy this issue.  And brace yourself–2016 is on its way.  It will be here before you know it!

Sudden Cardiac Death: The Israeli Experience

dr jose garza

Dr. Jose Garza, conducting a stress test on an athlete, Monterrey, Mexico

Screening for sudden cardiac death (SCD) remains one of the more contentious debates in the world of sports medicine.  As a matter of public policy, consensus medical opinion in the United States still argues against universal, mandatory  screening with electrocardiograms (ECGs); whereas in Europe, specifically in Italy, ECG screening is more of a routine practice.

The debate over this screening is carried on at many conferences and in many medical journals, including ours.  We’ve previously looked at the question of whether it makes sense to screen North American athletes with ECGs, for instance.  Earlier this year, we published a review of the different approaches American universities are currently using regarding the issue of athletic cardiovascular screening.  Recently, the topic came up in the podcast discussion I had with Dr. William Roberts on new directions for the pre-participation evaluation (PPE).  American and European sport medicine bodies can find a lot of common ground in where the PPE can be improved, according to Dr. Roberts, with the principal exception of this one issue.

Recently, Dr. Sami Viskin, from the Department of Cardiology, Tel Aviv Medical Center, spoke at my home institution about how athletes are screened for SCD in Israel.  He has written extensively on the issue of screening athletes for SCD, including a study arguing that it is not a cost-effective strategy in the United States.  The title of his recent talk: “Mandatory ECG screening of athletes saves lives: proven fact or wishful thinking?”

Our Division of Sports Medicine has been hosting another international guest this past month: Dr. Jose Angel Garza, a sports medicine physician from the University Hospital of the Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon (UANL) in Monterrey, Mexico. He was also present at Dr. Viskin’s talk, and I asked him for his reflections on the subject of mandatory ECG screening in athletes.

Thanks Joe!


Among the sports medical community, there is an ongoing and often heated debate on whether mandatory ECG screening should be performed on athletes. Several countries such as Italy and Israel have implemented such measures. The European Society of Cardiology has issued recommendations about mandatory screening of athletes with ECG. So this begs the question: Does ECG screening save lives in athletes? Read more of this post

Cardiac screening of athletes with ECG – is it time to focus on the older athletic population?

Roy Shephard’s article in the May edition of CJSM , ‘Is Electrocardiogram Screening of North American Athletes Now Warranted?’ discusses the ongoing controversy of the appropriateness of the use of ECGs in screening College athletes for causes of sudden cardiac death. I’m wondering if it is now the time for us to focus our thoughts on ECG screening of the older athletic population.

My own awareness of the issues around ECG screening of athletes started some 20 years ago when I presented a session on ‘The Athlete’s Heart’ as part of my Physiology degree studies at University College, London. I remember being quizzed at the end of my presentation by the Course Tutor on the effects of detraining, and wishing that I had done a little more reading to back up my claims when I gave my answer stating that, as the adaptations to the normal heart were the result of normal physiological mechanisms, detraining should always result in changes to pre-training baseline on the ECG reflecting the anatomical and physiological detraining effects. His face at the time told me the story that he wasn’t entirely convinced, but I think I got away with it!

I have continued to revisit the issues and re-evaluate the evidence as my career in Sport and Exercise Medicine (SEM) has progressed. My first clinical experience of preparticipation screening came almost a decade ago whilst working in New Zealand when I was involved in providing care for New Zealand Academy of Sport athletes. Since then, another essay on the subject during my MSc SEM studies, teaching MSc and BSc students on an annual basis on ‘The Athlete’s Heart and Sudden Cardiac Death,’ and most recently conducting screening as part of the Football Association’s mandatory screening programme of young footballers, has kept me in touch with emerging research and clinical practice.

One thought has remained with me over the years – that of the importance of fundamental epidemiological principles such as Wilson’s criteria in screening, and linked to those, the need to consider what we are trying to achieve by screening . Essentially, the cardiac screening process seeks to identify individuals at an increased risk of sudden cardiac death. What we do not wish to do is to prevent healthy individuals from enjoying all of the benefits of sport and exercise. Sudden Cardiac Death in the young is still a rare event, mainly due to the underlying age-related population prevalence of associated conditions such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, but what about the older population?

The emerging importance of physical activity as an important, under-recognised independent risk factor for morbidity and mortality, often associated with lifestyle diseases such as type II diabetes mellitus, has led to an increasing global effort to engage the population in regular exercise as part of both primary and secondary disease prevention strategies. Whilst it is indisputable that the population benefits of exercise far outweigh the associated risks, it is nevertheless true that the risk of sudden cardiac death during exercise in the over 35’s is considerably higher than in the younger population due to the higher prevalence of associated conditions, mainly coronary heart disease.

ACSM guidelines and AHA risk stratification criteria for exercise testing and prescription offer clinicians guidance in the risk stratification of individuals who engage with healthcare professionals prior to becoming physically active, and point towards the appropriate use of ECG and Exercise Stress Testing as part of the preparticipation evaluation process. However, many individuals, including the older population who regularly exercise or those who may be about to commence regular exercise having been sedentary, will not come under the care of a healthcare professional. These individuals are therefore unlikely to participate in cardiac screening programmes.

Many questions about population cardiac screening prior to participation in sport and exercise come to mind, including :

1) What is the risk / benefit ratio and cost effectiveness of the adoption of ECG screening and exercise stress testing as per ACSM and AHA guidelines on a population basis for those wishing to engage in exercise?

2) How regularly should ECG screening and cardiac stress testing as part of preparticipation evaluation on an ongoing basis be conducted in the older athletic population?

3) What is the best and most appropriate way to engage older individuals involved in exercising, or about to become physically active, in order to conduct screening?

4) Should we be adopting targeted screening including ECG and cardiac stress testing in the older population who are involved in regular exercise?

My greatest concern is for the safety of the older, sedentary individual who decides to take up the sport they previously played perhaps 20 years ago at College, or perhaps who wishes to participate in a 10K run for a local charity, and who does not seek appropriate healthcare advice prior to increasing their physical activity levels.

Should we be focussing our efforts more at population level on screening these older individuals when attempting to prevent sudden cardiac death related to exercise?

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