Most people don't think of heart problems as an issue among teenagers, and for most of them, it's not. But in rare instances, a teen can have a heart abnormality that can lead to health problems and even death.
Although heart problems in teens are rare, they can occur. These include arrhythmias, or irregular heartbeats; congenital heart defects, which are problems that babies have at birth; and cardiomyopathies, long-lasting diseases that can damage the muscle and tissue around the heart.
Of all the heart diseases that can affect children and teenagers, cardiomyopathies have garnered the most attention recently. They remain rare, but the traumatic deaths of some teenage athletes because of a sudden heart problem have made the disease more publicized.
A cardiomyopathy typically affects the muscle fibers and even the muscle cells of the heart. Damage to these tissues and cells can eventually lead to defects that cause low blood flow, low blood oxygen, high blood pressure, and other damaging effects. Some cardiomyopathies, like hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, become evident when a child is under physical exertion, such as while playing sports. This is when the risk of sudden cardiac death becomes greater.
The most recent statistics show that one in every 100,000 children under the age of 18 has some form of cardiomyopathy. The different forms of cardiomyopathy include dilated cardiomyopathy, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, and restrictive cardiomyopathy.
Recently, fear over sudden cardiac death has led some parent-based groups to offer heart screenings such as an echocardiogram–an ultrasound of the heart–or an electrocardiogram (EKG) to children at schools. These groups include the Heart to Play in Texas and Heart Screens for Teens in Georgia, among others.
The thought is that this extra bit of screening each year can help prevent sudden cardiac deaths. How effective are these tests? The American Heart Association (AHA) currently doesn't feel there is sufficient benefit to recommend a mass screening program.
Instead, the AHA recommends an intense, 12-point screening program that includes a thorough physical examination and a careful interview to uncover a teenager's family and personal history as part of his or her annual physical examination. If any abnormalities are detected, then a more extensive heart screen, such as an echocardiogram or EKG, may be recommended. In this situation, other family members should be screened as well.
Echocardiogram and EKG are both painless, relatively simple procedures that have almost no risks attached to them. If you feel strongly that your child should receive such heart screening before participating in athletics each year, it is certainly an issue that you should discuss with your family doctor.