Some readers here at the blog will remember that I once wrote a monthly column for Endurance Corner, a multisport coaching outfit. Many of the links to those articles are no longer active, as readers have pointed out. One of the most popular Endurance Corner articles was a 2010 article entitled “Caution! The Five Warning Signs You Shouldn’t Ignore.” I thought I’d update the article here at the blog, and include an additional, sixth warning sign that athletes should also be aware of.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that my athlete friends seem to be very “in touch” with their bodies. They can be hyper-vigilant about the first signs of “swimmer’s elbow” or plantar fasciitis or leg muscle strain. They’re also apt to be proactive about dealing with these problems. Maybe that’s just because it’s sometimes easy to self-diagnose a musculoskeletal problem and easy to self-prescribe rest, ice, or analgesics. Maybe over time, they’ve learned the lesson that early intervention can head off bigger problems later on. That’s an important lesson, too.
I’ve also noticed, though, that my athlete friends sometimes give short shrift to some of the warning signs of potentially more worrisome problems—problems that stem from the heart or cardiovascular system. In my experience, it seems that men are worse than women. Like I’ve mentioned in previous articles, young “healthy” men just don’t like to go to the doctor. It’s easy to think that we’re invincible and ignore serious warning signs until they simply can’t be ignored any longer. But just like plantar fasciitis, it’s always best to recognize and deal with any serious heart-related problem earlier rather than later.
Here’s my short list of six warning signs that you shouldn’t ignore. These are symptoms that you should discuss with your doctor. Get reassurance if there’s really no serious problem and get thoroughly evaluated if your doctor believes there may truly be something wrong.
- Chest pain or discomfort. Once every few weeks I meet with a small group of third year medical students to talk about patient scenarios that involve chest surgery. One of the scenarios that we discuss deals with a young man with chest pain. I ask the medical students to come up with a list of the potential causes and I’m always amazed at how many answers are offered up. Sometimes they’re able to list 30 or more. That’s the way it is with chest pain—many, many potential causes. These include things like injuries to the chest, reflux disease of the stomach, inflammation of the joints between the ribs and breast bone, anxiety, and diseases of the esophagus, among others. The students are quick to remember the potentially life-threatening causes such as heart attack (acute myocardial infarction), collapse of one of the lungs (pneumothorax), tears (dissection) of the aorta, the large blood vessel that carries blood away from the heart, and pulmonary embolism, the condition where blood clots form and travel to the lungs. I suppose that any of these causes may be in play for an athlete with chest pain. But the particular scenario that’s most important for athletes is chest pain or discomfort that comes with exertion and is relieved by rest. This can be an indication of coronary artery disease (CAD) that is usually caused by plaque build-up in the coronary arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle itself. In its early stages, the pain can be very subtle, perhaps nothing more than a twinge. In its later stages, the pain can be crippling. The good news is that, working with your doctor, you can be evaluated to see if chest pain is due to CAD. A variety of treatments may be available depending upon your situation. Don’t ignore chest pain!
- Unexplained shortness of breath. As athletes, we’re all short of breath at some point—some of us earlier than others. And as athletes, we usually become accustomed to the level of shortness of breath that is associated with a given workout or level of effort. What’s worrisome is when there is some change to that pattern—when shortness of breath is unexpectedly out of proportion to what you’d ordinarily expect. That’s when the alarm bells should go off inside your head. Just like chest pain, there are a myriad of causes of shortness of breath, ranging from pulmonary or bronchial infections, to asthma (potentially made worse with exercise), to blood clots in the lungs (pulmonary embolism). For athletes, the most worrisome sign might be shortness of breath that persists after exercise stops or shortness of breath that occurs at rest. Both are signs that a heart condition may be responsible. This is a warning sign that you should report to your doctor.
- Loss of consciousness. Much of medical school involves learning a big vocabulary of new “medical” words. Our word for sudden, unexpected loss of consciousness is syncope. Patients will use a variety of terms like “blacking out,” “passing out,” “falling out,” or even just “lightheadedness” or “dizziness.” Again, there are many causes, such as dehydration, side effects of various medications, etc. For athletes, one common scenario is near-syncope or syncope at the end of a workout, when the exercise is stopped abruptly without a period of cooling down. Thankfully, that situation can be avoided just by remembering to have an appropriate cool-down after each workout. The most worrisome type of syncope occurs during exercise. This almost always indicates a serious underlying medical problem—and often related to the heart. All cases of syncope should be discussed with your doctor, but it’s particularly important (bordering on emergency) to be evaluated if you have syncope during exercise.
- Unexplained fatigue. Like shortness of breath, all athletes are familiar with fatigue. Almost regardless of the sport, fatigue just comes with the territory. It’s important to remember that, besides exercise, there are many causes of fatigue, including depression, the side effects of various medications, and anemia, among others. It’s also true that fatigue can be a symptom of underlying heart disease. Athletes become accustomed to the degree of fatigue that is associated with any particular workout or load and they should be acutely aware when there is a change to this pattern. Whenever there is a sudden change in an athlete’s pattern of fatigue or when the fatigue persists for an excessively long time, it’s important to get evaluated. Find out what’s going on.
- Palpitations. Of the first five of these warning signs, palpitations—the feeling of an abnormally strong, fast, or irregular heartbeat that just grabs your attention—is undoubtedly the most common among athletes. It’s an unusual problem in school-aged athletes, but is very common among middle-aged endurance athletes. In some reports, as many as 70% of adult athletes report this problem. The palpitations may occur during exercise or at rest. We could make a long list of specific arrhythmias (abnormal heartbeats) that explain palpitations in athletes. The most common problems are due to abnormal heartbeats or rhythms (like atrial fibrillation) that start in the upper chambers of the heart (atria). Most of these arrhythmias are benign and require no treatment. But if you’re bothered by frequent palpitations, it is best to find out exactly what’s causing them, because they’re sometimes a sign of underlying heart problems that do require treatment. Resist the urge to ignore this problem.
- Unexplained decrease in performance. I didn’t include this warning sign in my original list back in 2010, but I’m adding it here because of what I’ve learned over these past few years. By decrease in performance, I’m talking about an unexplained decrease in pace, endurance, or perhaps other measures of performance. Needless to say, there could be many reasons for such a decrement, including (poor) nutrition or hydration, various illnesses or injuries, the distractions of life outside of sports, depression, or even, simply, aging. All of those potential causes deserve attention, of course. But I’ve also seen cases where an unexplained decrease in performance, in the absence of any of the other five warning signs above, was the only indication of a serious heart condition. In situations where a decrease in performance persists despite consideration of the more innocuous causes, evaluation by your doctor with a particular eye toward hidden heart problems may be in order.
I realize this is a short list. But by paying attention to just these six warning signs, athletes can uncover many of the potentially serious underlying heart-related conditions that could place them at risk. Do this for yourself and remind your athlete friends, too.