ECG variants and cardiac arrhythmias in athletes: clinical relevance and prognostic importance

Am Heart J. 1990 Jun;119(6):1378-91. doi: 10.1016/s0002-8703(05)80189-9.


These findings permit the following conclusions on cardiac changes induced by high-performance sports and high levels of training. Sinus bradycardia and AV block can frequently be observed in athletes, but they do not require attention as long as they are asymptomatic or do not produce pauses exceeding 4 seconds. Persistent rather than transient second-degree AV block or Mobitz second- or third-degree AV block is an extremely unusual finding even in athletes and should be considered a sign of organic lesions until proved otherwise. Supraventricular and AV node ectopic beats are not more frequent in athletes than in the general population except for atrial fibrillation. WPW syndrome is of particular importance, since rapid conduction to the ventricle via the accessory AV pathway is possible, especially if there is a tendency toward atrial fibrillation. Likewise caution is required in athletes with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Here hemodynamic deterioration must be anticipated with the occurrence of supraventricular tachycardia. Simple ventricular arrhythmias occur among athletes with the same frequency as in the general population, but they usually disappear with exercise. The occurrence of complex ventricular forms of arrhythmia should always prompt cardiologic examination in search of underlying cardiac disease, particularly hypertrophic or dilated cardiomyopathy. The presence of ventricular arrhythmias without evidence of underlying heart disease does not indicate a special or increased risk of sudden cardiac death. A higher incidence of right and/or left ventricular hypertrophy, exercise-reversible ST elevation, and exercise-reversible changes in T waves (T negativity, sharp and/or excessive T waves) can be considered physiologic changes in the ECGs of athletes. These changes correlate closely with the type of sports activity and degree of training and are reversible when the activity is stopped. Horizontal ST segment depression are by contrast very rare in athletes and should always be clarified by cardiologic examination. Exercise-induced sudden cardiac death in athletes is unusual without preexisting heart disease. The cause of sudden cardiac death among athletes less than 40 years of age can be predominantely ascribed to congenital heart diseases (such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy or coronary anomalies). In athletes more than 40 years of age and with increasing age, coronary heart disease is the most frequent autopsy finding. A corresponding risk stratification should take these partial dangers into account.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Arrhythmias, Cardiac / physiopathology*
  • Bundle-Branch Block / physiopathology
  • Death, Sudden / etiology
  • Electrocardiography*
  • Heart / physiology
  • Heart / physiopathology
  • Heart Block / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Physical Exertion
  • Prognosis
  • Sports*