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High chances of sudden cardiac death for extreme sports person: Are you aware?

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We live in times where leading a fast-paced lifestyle is common. Despite the chaos of routine life, many seek adventure and as a result there is a rise in the incidence of individuals training in extreme sports.

Extreme or adventure sports are those that involve speed, heights etc., and high level of physical exertion. The iron man challenge, marathon running, motor racing, skiing, mountain biking, white water rafting etc. are just few of the examples of extreme sports. Such activities are known to induce an ‘adrenaline rush’, which may be described as a boost of energy. Adrenaline is a hormone that helps our body act quickly in response to stressful stimuli. The effects of adrenaline on the body are that it makes the heart beat faster, increases blood flow to brain and muscles and stimulates the body to generate sugar to use as fuel. While this response is a protective mechanism in many instances, it is important, for extreme sports athletes especially, to understand the stress and learn techniques to effectively manage the response.

The reason behind this is that, extreme sports are associated with high level of risk and continuous biological changes in the body can damage blood vessels, increase blood pressure and raise the risk of heart disease and/or stroke. We keep hearing stories of famous extreme athletes/sportspersons who die, quite often during the sporting activity. Such individuals undergo grueling training in order to prepare the body for the activity. This makes us think, how safe is the growing trend of such activities? Is it worth taxing the body to the extent that it gives up on us, quite often at an early age?

Here’s a gist of what happens when we train for extreme sports: It is important that we understand the pros and cons of vigorous training and seek medical advice prior and after such activities. A condition called ‘athlete’s heart’ wherein rhythmic disturbances and rupture of plaques in the heart may occur due to intensive training. Also, there may be exacerbation of pre-existing chronic inflammation and spread of toxins due to extreme exertion. Overstretching mechanisms of the body, including functioning of the heart, will lead to overload and subsequently health hazards such as cardiac arrest and even death.

There was an assumption that, unlike muscles in the limbs, heart muscles do not get tired by exercise. However, it is now known that with hours of extreme exercise, the heart also gets worn-out, thereby increasing the chances of cardiac conditions. There may be scars (fibrosis) in the heart due to biological changes. While, the scars may gradually heal with time, in cases of continuous exertion, it could lead to deleterious outcomes. Muscle tissue that has scars has stretched and hardened and may not contract any longer. A well-known researcher in this field has described the condition of extreme athletes as “The hearts actually looked quite sick, but they rebounded quickly-within days they looked healthy-however, a pause was observed”.

All is not negative, though. Participation in extreme sports can help create profound and positive changes in life and the way we handle stress. Extreme athletes generally have good knowledge of their physical and psychological incapacities and respect the limits of their bodies. Nonetheless, it is important to be extremely aware of changes in breathing patterns (breathlessness), dizziness, chest pain, nausea before, during, and after the activity and seek immediate medical attention in order to prevent occurrence of unfortunate incidents.

By : Dr Pratik Soni, Cardiologist, Wockhardt Hospital Mumbai 

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