The Warning Signs: Symptoms of Athlete’s Heart Conditions

This article is an excerpt from The Haywire Heart, the first book to explore heart conditions in athletes.

Warning symptoms

If my case has any instructive use, it should be to demonstrate that there are plenty of warning signs of trouble. The key is to heed them. But what are they? And what should you be looking for in yourself?

There are two types of symptoms to worry about. Both fall into the category of “not normal.” Your immediate sensations are a good guide. You have probably been training for many years, if not most of your life. Those years of training have given you a good sense of what “normal” feels like. What you are looking for is anything that falls outside the boundaries of normal. For example, a brief flutter in your chest on a ride is probably nothing; nearly everyone gets one from time to time. A flutter that won’t go away, however, is cause for concern. A sustained irregular heartbeat is an abnormal feeling that should set off an alarm.

Sensations that are not normal include

  • Racing heart: any sustained racing of the heart that won’t go away.
  • Chest pressure or pain, especially pressure or pain that worsens during exertion.
  • Labored breathing: difficult breathing that is out of proportion to effort (everyone breathes hard when climbing hills or sprinting).
  • Fainting or near-fainting: anything more serious than the everyday lightheadedness you might feel after a hard effort.

These symptoms are serious warning signs that should alert you to possible trouble. Sustained chest pressure or chest pain warrants a call to 911.

All others warrant an appointment with your doctor, sooner rather than later. If you experience these symptoms, you should stop training until you can be evaluated by a professional. Please also consider buying and reading The Haywire Heart.

One part of the book offers a guide to how to talk to your doctor about a possible heart condition. Be warned that many doctors just don’t get athletes, even if they themselves are active exercisers. Many doctors just don’t understand the duration and intensity of workouts and races for endurance athletes. Doctors actually tend to overdiagnose heart conditions in athletes–simply because they are not accustomed to the slow and strong heart beats, high electocardiogram signals, and enlarged hearts that are often normal for endurance athletes. For women, talking to your doctor is especially important; women under 55 are actually 7 times more likely to be misdiagnosed or turned away at the ER.

The bottom line:

  1. Call 911 immediately if you have sustained chest pressure or chest pain. 
  2. If you experience the “not normal” sensations listed above, stop exercising and schedule an appointment with your primary care physician.
  3. Before you see your doc, read The Haywire Heart so you are prepared for your appointment.

Sharing is caring. Please consider sharing this article with your athletic friends so they might avoid heart problems or catch them before they worsen.

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