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Athletes with ICDs: Can They Still Play Sports?

April 14, 2020
Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen

An implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) is a device used to prevent cardiac arrhythmias–a type of abnormal heartbeat that can be life-threatening. The battery-powered device is implanted under the skin and is designed to constantly monitor the heart rate and discharge an electric shock when an arrhythmia is detected. It’s usually recommended for those who have had a heart attack or suffer from other severe heart conditions. Nonetheless, people of all ages may need an ICD–including children. 

 

Athletes are not exempt from having heart problems and may also require ICDs. For years, it was thought that participating in competitive sports and having an ICD was a dangerous combination because the ICD may negatively react to the elevated heart rate sustained while playing sports. But a 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association concluded that playing sports with an ICD is quite safe, contrary to popular opinion.

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Atrial Fibrillation

Atrial Fibrillation

129 young athletes with ICDs aged 10 to 21 participated in the study, most of them basketball and soccer players. The athletes were diagnosed with either long QT syndrome, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or congenital heart disease, and all of them competed at physically strenuous levels. During the study period, athletes’ ICDs delivered 29 appropriate shocks overall, but only 6 occurred during practice or competition. None of the shocks resulted in adverse effects. During the study follow-up period of 42 months, none of the athletes experienced any serious cardiovascular injuries. 

 

“We show that many young athletes with ICDs can participate in competitive and high-intensity sports without failure to terminate arrhythmias or injury, despite the shocks, confirming results of a smaller single-center registry of 21 young people,” said Elizabeth Vickers Saarel, MD, pediatric cardiologist at Cleveland Clinic and lead author of the study.

 

The study authors said if parents are worried about their children playing sports with ICDs, they should discuss the matter with a physician, but it seems that they shouldn’t have much cause for concern.

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Coronary Artery Disease: Lifestyle Changes

Coronary Artery Disease: Lifestyle Changes

A previous study found similar results. A study done in June of 2017 and published in Circulation analyzed 440 people aged 10 to 60. 393 participated in organized sports, and 47 took part in “high-risk” sports, such as basketball, soccer or running. 10 percent of participants received appropriate shocks while playing sports. None of them suffered irregular heartbeats, shock-related injuries, or deaths. 

 

“Even though some people did receive shocks while they were participating in sports, no harm came to patients,” said Rachel Lampert, M.D., professor of internal medicine at Yale School of Medicine and lead author of the study.

 

The research clearly shows that having an ICD and playing sports is not a dangerous combination. But to be on the safe side, athletes with heart conditions should always consult with their doctor before taking part in sports.

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