Athlete's heart or hypertrophic cardiomyopathy?

Clin Res Cardiol. 2009 Feb;98(2):80-8. doi: 10.1007/s00392-008-0721-2. Epub 2008 Oct 13.


Intensive endurance training is able to cause a distinct pattern of functional and structural changes of the cardiovascular system. In an unknown proportion of athletes a so called "athlete's heart" develops. There is an overlap between this type of physiologic cardiac hypertrophy and mild forms of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), the most common genetic disorder of the cardiovascular system with a prevalence of 0.2%. HCM is caused by mutations in 14 genes coding for sarcomere proteins. In the literature up to 50% of cases of sudden cardiac death (SCD) in younger sportsmen were connected to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. It is therefore the most common cause of SCD in highly trained young athletes. Because of this data a great interest in distinguishing these two diagnoses exists. Apart from clinical examination and some non-specific ECG-changes, Echocardiography is the method of choice. The athlete's heart shows an eccentric biventricular hypertrophy with wall thicknesses under 15 mm and a moderately dilated left ventricle (LVEDD up to 58 mm). HCM is commonly characterized by asymmetric left ventricular hypertrophy with a reduced LV-diameter. In up to 70% of cases left ventricular outflow tract obstruction is evident during stress echocardiography. Systolic function is normal in highly trained athletes and the majority of HCM patients as well. There are important differences regarding diastolic filling patterns. Physiological hypertrophy is consistent with a normal diastolic function with even increased early diastolic filling. In case of HCM diastolic dysfunction (mostly relaxation disturbances) occurs in the majority of patients and is therefore inconsistent with an athlete's heart. If the diagnosis could not be stated using echocardiography, methods like cardiac-MRI, metabolic exercise testing, histological studies of endomyocardial biopsies and genetic testing can provide further information. A correct diagnosis may on the one hand prevent some athletes from sudden cardiac death. On the other hand sportsmen with an athlete's heart are reassured and able to continue as competitors. New insights into electrophysiological changes during physiological hypertrophy could probably change this view.

Publication types

  • Case Reports
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cardiomegaly / diagnosis*
  • Cardiomegaly / etiology
  • Cardiomegaly / physiopathology
  • Cardiomyopathy, Hypertrophic / diagnosis*
  • Cardiomyopathy, Hypertrophic / etiology
  • Cardiomyopathy, Hypertrophic / physiopathology
  • Death, Sudden, Cardiac / prevention & control
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Echocardiography
  • Female
  • Heart / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Physical Endurance / physiology
  • Sports / physiology*
  • Ventricular Outflow Obstruction / diagnosis
  • Young Adult