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Would ECHO testing during the PPE prevent sudden cardiac death?

Mike McKenney, MS, ATC

Posted November 2, 2016

By Mike McKenney, MS, ATC

During the pre-participation examination (PPE), many healthcare practitioners employ a traditional cardiac questionnaire and physical examination to detect potential abnormalities and other serious medical conditions that may impact safe participation in sport. However, a physical examination and history are not always sufficient to detect abnormalities of the heart that can result in sudden cardiac death (SCD). More recently, there has been increasing support for broader implementation of electrocardiograph (ECG) testing at all levels of sport. This includes attempts to mandate ECG testing for all high school athletes. Barriers to mandatory ECG testing typically revolve around cost, but there are other factors to consider before requiring this form of screening in an athletic population.

The intended purpose of an ECG is to assess electrical activity of the heart and assist clinicians in determining if a cardiac abnormality is present, whether it be genetic, structural or conductive in nature. However, only 3 percent of cases that result in SCD are of conduction-related causes.1, 2 In young, competitive athletes, structural abnormalities represent the largest percentage of SCD, 84 percent of reported cases,1 which includes conditions such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). Simply put, mandating ECG testing in sport may not be the best step forward due to the test’s limitations in screening for the primary causes of SCD.

The difficulty in utilizing ECG to detect structural abnormalities is reflected in a high false-positive rate due to detection of cardiac adaptations regularly found in trained athletes,1, 3 and other variations that are common with normal cardiac rhythm.3Furthermore, ECG lacks the specificity to reliably detect HCM,3 which is a condition that is largely asymptomatic until an SCD event occurs.2 Additionally, results can be interpreted differently between physicians if consistent standards are not being applied.4 Due to the aforementioned factors, athletes are often subject to unnecessary referrals for further screening that often turn out to be of no concern,4 and add further cost to the evaluation process.2

Echocardiograms (ECHO) are the gold standard for visualizing the heart and are what athletes typically receive when referred to a cardiologist for advanced evaluation. Traditionally, the ECHO is performed in a cardiologist’s office. However, with advances in portable ultrasound technology, there is an emerging application for ECHO testing to be conducted by a front-line physician at a school’s sports medicine facility.2 At Northeastern University, a study5 was conducted utilizing this procedure and found that referral to a cardiologist was reduced by 33 percent. There were no differences between measurements obtained by the school’s physician and an outside cardiologist. In addition, research currently in review found the portable ECHO procedure to be significantly quicker than a traditional history and physical or ECG.2 This finding could potentially lead the way to a more thorough and efficient PPE process.

The costs associated with cardiac screening will always be a point of contention, but results of the previously discussed research are going to shift the discussion in a new way. It is not yet known if on-site portable ECHO testing will be a cost saving measure.  However, in theory, a reduction in unnecessary referrals should reduce the overall cost of screening. Moreover, clinicians will have the added benefit of being able to visualize conditions that can result in SCD, instead of trying to infer their presence from electrical activity alone. If we are to continue advocating for access to advanced cardiac screening, future efforts should be focused on methods and services that provide a more efficient and accurate assessment.

Resources

1. Maron BJ, Thompson PD, Ackerman MJ, et al. Recommendations and considerations related to preparticipation screening for cardiovascular abnormalities in competitive athletes: 2007 update: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association Council on Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Metabolism: endorsed by the American College of Cardiology Foundation. Circulation. 2007;115(12):1643-1455.

2. Kerkhof D, Gleason C, Basilico F, Corrado G. Is there a role for limited echocardiography during the preparticipation physical examination?. PM & R: The Journal of Injury, Function, And Rehabilitation. March 2016;8(3 Suppl):S36-S44.

3. Maron B, Friedman R, Thompson P, et al. Assessment of the 12-lead ECG as a screening test for detection of cardiovascular disease in healthy general populations of young people (12-25 Years of Age): a scientific statement from the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology. Circulation.2014;130(15):1303-1334.

4. Hainline B, Drezner J, Thompson P, et al. Interassociation consensus statement on cardiovascular care of college student-athletes. Journal Of The American College Of Cardiology. 2016;67(25):2981-2995.

5. Yim E, Basilico F, Corrado G. Early screening for cardiovascular abnormalities with preparticipation echocardiography: utility of focused physician-operated echocardiography in preparticipation screening of athletes. Journal Of Ultrasound In Medicine: Official Journal Of The American Institute Of Ultrasound In Medicine.2014;33(2):307-313.

About the Author

Mike McKenney is an Athletic Trainer (AT) at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, where he is the Medical Coordinator for their Division I men’s ice hockey program.  Prior to Northeastern University, he served as an AT in multiple settings including secondary schools, Division I athletics and professional cycling; additionally, he worked as an AT who extends the services of a physician for a large orthopedic group.  He has also provided services for many organizations to include the Boston Marathon, USA Cycling and USA Volleyball.

McKenney is a hydration and electrolyte replacement consultant for the Atlanta Hawks of the NBA.  His professional interests include hydration, electrolyte replacement, thermoregulation in sport and postural restoration.  McKenney completed his athletic training education at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minnesota and master’s degree at North Dakota State University in Fargo, North Dakota.  His graduate research was published in the February 2015 edition of the Journal of Athletic Training.