Researchers launch study to evaluate risks, benefits of ECG screening in high school athletes

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Researchers in Texas are launching a pilot study examining whether electrocardiograms (ECGs) are useful in identifying high school athletes who are at risk of sudden cardiac death.

Heart specialists at UT Southwestern Medical Center plan on enrolling student athletes and band members from high schools in the Richardson Independent and Keller Independent school districts in north Texas who volunteer to participate.

Student athletes at half of the high schools will be randomized to receive the standard history and physical required for participating in high school sports, while the other half will be given a 12-lead ECG screening in addition to the standard history and physical.

UT Southwestern said in a news release that parents and students will get the ECG results but school districts will not receive the findings. At their parents’ discretion, students can meet for a follow-up evaluation with local cardiologists, who will also conduct an echocardiogram at no charge if necessary.

Benjamin Levine, MD, of UT Southwestern, said in the news release that researchers will follow up with students via text messaging on their cell phones. The researchers will first determine if the methodology is feasible. If it is feasible, they will conduct a larger a larger study.

UT Southwestern cited research from the American Heart Association that estimated 66 athletes between 13 and 25 years old die each year from sudden cardiac arrest. The researchers acknowledged that ECGs cannot identify all conditions associated with sudden cardiac arrest, but the tests can identify hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, right ventricular cardiomyopathy, long QT syndrome and Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome.

“It is a tragedy when a young person dies of sudden cardiac death, and physicians want to do everything possible to prevent such occurrences,” Levine said in a news release. “But it is a rare event and there are costs, both social and financial, to ECG screening. In the high school age group, there will be more false positives than real problems identified, with the result that some healthy students may be exposed to risky tests and procedures or unnecessarily prohibited from participating in school athletics. The only way to find out if the benefits outweigh the problems is to do a clinical trial.”