Evaluation of a patient for participation in sporting activities has a traditional role in ensuring their health before enduring the effects and stresses of that particular sport. This form of patient evaluation has been used in both professional as well as amateur athletes; hence having a variable level of comprehensiveness. Many sports associations and leagues require a health exam, documentation, and paperwork from physicians and other health care providers to certify that the subjects are healthy and ready for their sport of choice. Patients will undergo an assessment which includes personal medical history, family medical history, history of supplemental or enhancer drug use, a physical examination, and potential diagnostic tests.
The medical history evaluates potential existing medical illnesses which include cardiac illness, musculoskeletal disease, history of neurological illness, respiratory disease, bleeding disorders, and psychiatric illness. Similarly, the family history is made to evaluate for any diseases that might have been inherited but are asymptomatic or have not yet recognized. The physical examination assesses for optimal neurological and musculoskeletal health as well as evaluation of the cardiovascular function. Diagnostic tests which may be performed include blood tests and electrocardiograms (ECGs). The purpose is to assess organ health and to assess cardiac structure and function. Abnormal findings during the history and physical examination or ECG may prompt further diagnostic tests and evaluations.
The purpose of this activity is to review the fundamental components of a medical evaluation for an athlete and how these evaluations can be optimized to ensure that our subject is medically safe, within a certain degree, for their choice of sporting activity.
The primary purpose of a sports' participation evaluation is assessing for underlying medical pathology while also ensuring that the athlete is in optimal health. Athletes are asked about symptoms they are experiencing during times of physical exertion and at rest.
Key Symptoms and Medical History In Athletes
Family Medical History
Cardiac-related symptoms that occur during rest and exertion are of particular concern due to the risk of sudden cardiac death. However, other probable etiologies should also be considered. Given that congenital heart disease is inherited, it is important to assess the family medical history for possible undiagnosed heart disease.
The physical examination focuses on the cardiovascular, respiratory, musculoskeletal, and neurological systems. The patient is checked for regular heart rhythm, the possible presence of murmurs and the existence of an S3 or S4 sound upon auscultation. The presence of heaves, lifts or thrills is also evaluated. The respiratory exam is used to ensure that the athlete does not have asthma or if they do, it is well controlled. Furthermore, the musculoskeletal examination serves the purpose of assessing muscle strength, joint, and extremity health. It is especially important for athletes engaging in contact sports given the potential risk of damage to their connective tissues. Contact sports are also a concern in those with histories of the neurological disease. Lastly, psychiatric assessment is an important aspect of examining an athlete. Psychiatric illnesses might interfere with the dynamics of teamwork and participation. Some psychiatric illnesses may be exacerbated by the mental and physical stress of competitive sports. Also, the athlete's performance may not be optimal if mental illness is present.
Supplement and Drug Use
A thorough medical examination of an athlete must include assessment of any supplements and drugs the athlete uses. Health and nutritional supplements are commonly used within the general population that are frequently used within the athletic communities. Certain supplements may contain ingredients that pose a health risk to the athlete and are banned for use by the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA). Also, certain supplements such as specific stimulants may be legal for use but pose a long-term cumulative health risk when used in repetitive high doses. Beyond the use of supplements, performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) and recreational drugs are both cause for concern in athletes. PEDs are highly sport-specific, with the most commonly used ones being categorized into anabolic agents and stimulants. Anabolic drugs are further categorized into anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS), peptide hormones and other newer drugs. An example of a new class of drugs which have become popular is selective androgen receptor modulators (SARMs); which are potentially harmful and banned by the WADA. Recreational drug use is also of concern in athletes given their health risks and interference with their function and drug testing during sporting activities. Lastly, prescribed medications should always be evaluated given their potential for causing an athlete to fail a drug test or to affect his/her performance.
There are a variety of written opinions regarding the use of the ECG to screen athletes for cardiac defects. The decision to undergo testing may be a shared decision between the physician and the patient. It is critical to distinguish between abnormal ECG findings within the general population and normal findings in athletes. ECGs in athletes should be assessed for accessory pathways, short PR intervals, long or short QT intervals, epsilon waves, T wave inversions, excessive premature ventricular contractions, and any significant pathologic signs. Normal ECG findings in athletes include bradycardia, sinus arrhythmia, ventricular enlargement, and first-degree atrioventricular block. Additional diagnostic testing and trial treatments can be reduced significantly by distinguishing between benign and pathologic findings.
A significant issue surrounding sports pre-participation physical examinations is the potential for unnecessary diagnostic testing. The tests may reveal false positive findings and lead to further invasive testing which causes superfluous harm and anxiety to the patient. It is crucial for the physician to assess each athlete on a case by case basis to ensure unnecessary testing and treatment is minimized.
On the issue of PED use, many users may not directly reveal to their physicians that they use PEDs. It is imperative to thoroughly assess supplement and drug use in athletes so that the athlete's health risks can be accurately evaluated.
Athletes who experience potential cardiac symptoms, especially episodes of syncope, may be at risk of sudden cardiac death. However, the differential diagnosis for syncope in athletes should always include vasovagal events, heat stroke, dehydration, and blunt trauma. An optimal sports participation evaluation will reassure the athlete that they are not at risk of sudden cardiac death or any predictable severe injury while participating.
Cardiac Conditions Associated With Sudden Death In Athletes
Beyond assessing for the risk of sudden death, the risk of general harm to the athlete should be considered in the context of their medical history and sport of choice.
PEDs and Associated Health Risks
Overall goals of preparticipation evaluation are to identify medical problems and treat them before initiation of the activity, identify and treat conditions that might interfere with performance and cause damage or injury, maximize the participation but minimize the potential dangers and complications. Many leagues and clubs ask for preparticipation evaluation 6-8 weeks before start day to have enough time available to do additional testing, if required. Many of them also ask for a yearly repeat of the evaluation and re-evaluation if there is a change in the level of participation.
Chances of sudden cardiac death are minimal (1 in 100,000 young athletes per year). Other potential complications are not so common. Most of the time the benefit of exercise outweigh the risks associated with it, regardless, baseline fitness of the athlete together with the type and intensity of the sport played, determine the overall risk.
Health care workers should take an interdisciplinary team-based approach to ensure that athletes participate safely in sports. Primary care physicians and nurse practitioners can provide optimal screening for their athletic patients and ensure they do not have any significant medical issues. Pharmacists also play a significant role as educators, especially in the era of supplements. Unnecessary use of nutritional and health supplements can be avoided if an athlete is thoroughly educated and has ready access to a pharmacist.
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