Cardiovascular Athlete Physical

By Stephen W. Parcell, ND

I understand masters athletes. It helps to be one myself. I compete in cyclocross, road cycling and Nordic skiing in the Greater Denver/Boulder area. 

Why see me? The typical conventional workup will only include an ekg or possibly a stress test. The stress test is analagous to taking a used car on the highway and flooring it. We all know that a fan belt or other part could fail the next day. Passing a stress test does NOT mean you are good to go. It just means that you do not need surgery or other intervention. The stress test does not check for plaque, valve problems or dangerous changes to the heart muscle that could lead to arrhythmias or sudden heart attacks.

Athletes can also develop collateral circulation that can mask a blocked artery. This could mean no chest pain with exercise even though there is a narrowed (or blocked) artery.

Older athletes are generally very healthy but may put themselves at risk for heart problems. This is because the heart does not always adapt in a healthy way to intense exercise as one gets older.  We hear about endurance athletes dying of heart related problems.

Why is this? The most common causes are:

  1. Atherosclerosis: Plaque breaks off and causes a heart attack.
  2. Cardiomyopathy: Heart muscle undergoes changes that can cause irregular heart beat which can lead to a heart attack.
  3. Valve problems: Heart valves may start to fail leading to decreased cardiac output and heart failure.

All athletes should have a sports physical. Its just more important as we age. The physical should include an echocardiogram and selected blood work. Nothing is better than an echo to assess cardiac function. I also like our athlete patients to have a heart scan to look for plaque as well as a carotid ultrasound to assess plaque thickness in that large artery.  I also like them to have a special cardiac muscle strain assessment. Blood work looks at nutrition, inflammation as well as hormonal components. 

Don’t be caught by surprise by a cardiac event. Older athletes should know that the level of exercise they are engaging in is not doing any harm.

Call today to set up a comprehensive screening.