We blame the media. Sudden heart conditions in young athletes lead to dramatic headlines, and parents understandably start worrying: “What if this happens to my child?”
“When this does happen, it’s a terrible story all the way around,” said Dr. Beau Gedrick, a sports medicine and emergency room physician at Augusta University Health. “But thankfully it’s pretty rare. There are millions of middle and high school athletes, and less than 1/10th of 1 percent suffer a cardiac event while playing sports.”
But it’s these kinds of worries and others that make the annual sports physical so important.
Although the exam is required for school athletes in both Georgia and South Carolina, it’s so much more than just another form to fill out. It’s also a great opportunity for both parents and young athletes to bring up any problems and get advice to help children stay well and healthy.
Cue the “Duck Walk”
A sports physical examines the athlete from head to toe. The physical part of the exam includes listening to the heart and lungs, checking vision and hearing and putting the athlete through different movements to measure musculoskeletal strength, function, flexibility and balance (including the “duck walk,” where the patient squats like a baseball catcher and tries to walk across the room).
But don’t be surprised if your doctor does a lot of talking too. “Most of the information we get from patients is more so in the medical history and talking, rather than the actual physical exam,” said Gedrick. Questions can include:
- Have you had any past injuries?
- Have you had any medical problems related to your heart or lungs?
- Is there a family history of heart conditions? If yes, is there a history of sudden death related to a heart condition?
- Are you having any symptoms related to exercise or within an hour of exercise, such as chest pain, shortness of breath or fainting?
To help get the conversation started, the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (https://www.amssm.org/PPEMono.php) provides a questionnaire that families can complete and bring to their doctor to use as part of their medical history and physical.
Based on these answers, if your doctor thinks your child might have a heart condition, he or she will need further testing. This could include an electrocardiogram or EKG, which uses electrodes applied to the skin to measure the heart’s electrical activity. Another test is an echocardiogram, which is an ultrasound test that sends sound waves into the chest to get moving pictures of the heart.
What Parents Can Do
Getting the average teen to share information tends to be tough, but most athletes are eager to be sure they can play and play at the level they’re used to. Still, parents should also make sure to bring up any signs or symptoms they’ve noticed.
“Is your child not walking normally or limping? Does your child keep saying he or she is tired? We can discuss mental issues as well, such as, are they not as interested in the sport anymore, even though they’ve been playing the sport for a while? Has their level of competition dropped off? Those are the kinds of things parents often tell me and are concerned about,” said Gedrick.
Parents can also help make sure their kids are staying in good general health. Getting enough sleep and eating a healthy diet will help them maintain energy levels, and addressing small injuries immediately can keep them from turning into larger ones down the road.
“Also, in this day and age, we all tend to do too much. Overdoing it and not having any kind of break between seasons is one of the worst things your child can do,” said Gedrick. “That’s the whole point of the sports physical, to help keep athletes healthier, both on and off the field.”
The general pediatricians and adolescent medicine specialists at Children’s Hospital of Georgia in Augusta provide primary care for children up to age 21. This includes routine health assessments, sports physicals, immunizations and sick care. Request an online appointment now or call 706-721-KIDS (5437) or toll free at 888-721-KIDS (5437) to speak to a member of our pediatric primary care team.