Even with mild COVID-19, athletes need cardiac testing before returning to play



Potential risks of cardiac injury posed by coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) infection warrant a cautious return-to-play for highly active people and competitive athletes who test positive, according to leading sports cardiologists.

Dr. Dermot Phelan, Atrium Health in Charlotte, N.C.

Dr. Dermot Phelan

To prevent cardiac injury, athletes should rest for at least 2 weeks after symptoms resolve, then undergo cardiac testing before returning high-level competitive sports, reported lead author Dermot Phelan, MD, PhD, of Atrium Health in Charlotte, N.C., and colleagues.

These recommendations, which were published in JAMA Cardiology, are part of a clinical algorithm that sorts athletes based on coronavirus test status and symptom severity. The algorithm offers a clear timeline for resumption of activity, with management decisions for symptomatic individuals based on additional diagnostics, such as high-sensitivity troponin testing and electrocardiogram.

Despite a scarcity of relevant clinical data, Dr. Phelan said that he and his colleagues wanted to offer their best recommendations to the athletic community, who had been reaching out for help.

“We were getting calls and messages from amateur and professional sporting organizations from around the country asking for guidance about what to do,” Dr. Phelan said. “So a number of us from the American College of Cardiology Sports and Exercise Council decided that we really should provide some guidance even in the absence of good, strong data, for what we feel is a reasonable approach.”

The recommendations were based on what is known of other viral infections, as well as risks posed by COVID-19 that may be worsened by athletic activity.

“We know that, when people have an active infection, vigorous exercise can lower immunity, and that can make the infection worse,” Dr. Phelan said. “That really applies very strongly in people who have had myocarditis. If you exercise when you have myocarditis, it actually increases viral replication and results in increased necrosis of the heart muscle. We really want to avoid exercising during that active infection phase.”

Myocarditis is one of the top causes of sudden cardiac death among young athletes, Dr. Phelan said, “so that’s a major concern for us.”

According to Dr. Phelan, existing data suggest a wide range of incidence of 7%-33% for cardiac injury among patients hospitalized for COVID-19. Even the low end of this range, at 7%, is significantly higher than the incidence rate of 1% found in patients with non–COVID-19 acute viral infections.

“This particular virus appears to cause more cardiac insults than other viruses,” Dr. Phelan said.

The incidence of cardiac injury among nonhospitalized patients remains unknown, leaving a wide knowledge gap that shaped the conservative nature of the present recommendations.

With more information, however, the guidance may “change dramatically,” Dr. Phelan said.

“If the data come back and show that no nonhospitalized patients got cardiac injury, then we would be much more comfortable allowing return to play without the need for cardiac testing,” he said.

Conversely, if cardiac injury is more common than anticipated, then more extensive testing may be needed, he added.

As the algorithm stands, high-sensitivity troponin testing and/or cardiac studies are recommended for all symptomatic athletes; if troponin levels are greater than the 99th percentile or a cardiac study is abnormal, then clinicians should follow return-to-play guidelines for myocarditis. For athletes with normal tests, slow resumption of activity is recommended, including close monitoring for clinical deterioration.

As Dr. Phelan discussed these recommendations in a broader context, he emphasized the need for caution, both preventively, and for cardiologists working with recovering athletes.

“For the early stage of this reentry into normal life while this is still an active pandemic, we need to be cautious,” Dr. Phelan said. “We need to follow the regular CDC guidelines, in terms of social distancing and handwashing, but we also need to consider that those people who have suffered from COVID-19 may have had cardiac injury. We don’t know that yet. But we need to be cautious with these individuals and test them before they return to high-level competitive sports.”

One author disclosed a relationship with the Atlanta Falcons.

SOURCE: Phelan D et al. JAMA Cardiology. 2020 Apr 13. doi: 10.1001/jamacardio.2020.2136.

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