In 2016, we saw four footballers around the world in just one week collapse suddenly of a heart attack on the pitch … and die. And then Sydney FC’s youth hopeful Chris Naumoff was forced to retire early. All footballers were outwardly incredibly fit and healthy. And young – only in their twenties. So why has this happened to these fit athletes .. and why does it keep happening to others? 

Sadly, the recent deaths and Chris Naumoff’s condition may be attributed to an inherited disorder known as Hypertrophic Obstructive Cardiomyopathy, known otherwise as HOCM or HCM. It essentially makes the hearts of young athletes behave like those of the elderly.

An athlete, especially one expected to run constantly, has a heart that is somewhat different to the average person’s. Their heart muscle has been built up through constant training to withstand the high stress of vigorous activity. This development is important in order to pump blood more efficiently around the body.

If you have HOCM, however, this isn’t such a good thing. Those with this disease already have abnormally thick heart muscle walls – most often in the left ventricle, which is the main pumping chamber of the heart. When you add to this the training and competition required of an athlete, the muscle walls can become so thick that they prevent normal blood flow. And this is when lives become threatened.

heart attacks in sport

Only about one in 200 people are thought to be at risk of HOCM. But the consequences of a missed diagnosis can be devastating.

How would you know if you have HOCM?

Some people with HOCM may experience chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, fainting episodes or heart palpitations, especially during or following exercise. If you are having any of these symptoms, please go straight to your GP for a heart assessment. Tragically, many with HOCM fail to show any symptoms – the first sign of the disease can be sudden death, which is what we are seeing happen to some of our young athletes, male and female.

If you are aware you have a family history of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, it is vital you undergo clinical screening by a cardiologist. This would involve tests to look at the structure, rhythm and function of your heart.

How is HOCM treated?

It’s up to the cardiologist to determine the best course of treatment. If there are symptoms, such as those above, then beta-blockers may be issued to slow the heart rate, or Warfarin may be given to treat atrial fibrillation, which occurs in a quarter of those with HOCM. If you could be at risk of dying suddenly, the cardiologist may suggest an automatic implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (AICD). This device (a bit like a pacemaker) is inserted into the chest with leads extending down into the heart to monitor its rhythm. If necessary, it will deliver an electric shock to return the heart to a normal rhythm.

Should those with HOCM play sport?

People who have HOCM are advised not to take part in competitive sport or any sports that require significant exertion. These sports would include football, basketball, netball, squash, running and even some social games. Competitive sports are particularly to be avoided because of the large number of sudden deaths in people with HOCM occurring during or just after exercise.

Do you or anyone you know have HOCM? How has it changed your life? We’d love to hear your thoughts on this shocking disease in the comments section below.

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