Good Question: Should We Screen Student Athletes for Heart Conditions?

Author: Melissa Luck, KXLY4 Executive Producer , melissal@kxly.com
Published On: Sep 09 2011 05:19:09 PM PDT   Updated On: Mar 21 2011 05:36:47 AM PDT

In recent weeks, we've told you about the deaths of high school athletes. Kids, who died in the prime of their lives from heart conditions they never knew they had. It has a lot of parents wondering: should we be screening student athletes for heart conditions?

Two weeks ago, 17-year old Matthew Hammerdorfer died while playing a rugby game. Just three days before, 16-year old Wes Leonard hit the game-winning shot in his Michigan high school basketball game, then collapsed and died during the celebration. Both had heart conditions, but never knew about it.

"There's a type of cardio-myopathy that is the most common cause of sudden death - or associated with it - and, that's when the muscle is actually too thick," explained Dr. Hal Goldberg of Spokane Cardiology. That type of condition accounts for 25 percent of sudden athlete deaths. Still, it's not that common, only affecting two out of 100,000 student athletes each year. For Wes and Matthew's parents, one death is too many. But, what does that mean for the rest of us? Should we get our kids screened before they play sports?

"So, basically," explained Dr. Goldberg. "This is the search for the needle in a haystack."

The standard sports physical won't pick up the most common cause of sudden death. You can't hear it through a stethoscope. You actually need an EKG to pick up on this type of defect. Then, there's the matter of what to do if you actually find something.

"When you start applying a test to a certain population that has a low incidence of disease, you're going to find something called false positives," said Dr. Goldberg. "You're going to find some disease that has no implications for causing a problem."

Some countries do screen athletes, with mixed results. In Italy, 20 years of testing dropped the rate of sudden athlete death from 3.5 per 100,000 to 0.5 per 100,000. But, Italian athletes are actually predisposed to a certain heart condition. In Israel, pre-screening didn't change the rate of sudden death at all.

If athletes do find a heart condition, they're often told not to play ever again. That's what happened to Tori Sorenson, a Gonzaga student who collapsed during an intramural game a few years ago. But, NBA great "Pistol" Pete Maravich played a full career with a condition and survived. He died eight years after he retired during a pick-up game at his church.

Dr. Goldberg said there are warning signs. If you have a family history of sudden death, get your child checked out before they play. And, if they ever pass out or get light-headed while playing, it could be a sign of a more serious condition.

But, you can't test for everything. The second leading cause of sudden athlete death comes from a blow to the chest. There's nothing you can do to test for that beforehand.

If you can't prevent or test for these conditions, Washington high schools are doing what they can to be proactive on the backside. They're putting defibrillators in schools to revive students who collapse on the court, knowing that even two deaths per 100,000 athletes is far too many.