The same Indiana University Health doctors who will perform cardiovascular tests on each of the more than 300 collegiate prospects traveling to Indianapolis to participate in this week's NFL Scouting Combine (Feb. 23rd -29th) have opened a new, year-round program to examine the heart health of athletes of all ages and stages.

As Indiana’s first full-time sports cardiology program, the newly launched IU Health Center for Cardiovascular Care in Athletics, based at IU Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, offers a full range of services fine-tuned for active individuals of all levels – from high school students in need of a physical to adults needing further examination following a concerning cardiovascular event on or off the track or field.

The comprehensive program was created to help prevent athlete deaths caused by undiagnosed heart disease – one of the deadliest issues in sports today. Hundreds of American athletes of all ages, sports and skill levels die each year from heart problems that weren’t detected or treated in time.

It’s a complicated issue to tackle, partly because an athlete’s heart tends to look and function differently than the heart of the average individual. In fact, recent studies show that approximately 25 percent of athletes actually experience adaptations in the size and function of their hearts in response to consistent exercise and intense training.

While these adaptations aren’t necessarily harmful, continued news coverage of athletes suffering sudden cardiac death has prompted heart specialists to take a closer look at athletic hearts and the ways they can differ from the average heart and to develop athlete-specific criteria for interpreting test results. But the number of clinical programs with experienced specialists trained to understand athlete-specific heart issues are few and far between.

“An athlete’s heart is a high-performance machine with unique needs, but only a handful of cardiology programs throughout the country are dedicated to evaluating these active individuals,” said Michael Emery, M.D., a sports cardiologist at IU Health and medical director of the IU Health Center for Cardiovascular Care in Athletics. “Now, with this program, we’re going to use every tool in our toolbox to determine which athletes might have a serious heart problem so we can intervene to help keep preventable tragedies from happening."

While the new program will use a variety of diagnostic tools including heart scans and echocardiograms, its centerpiece is its Sports Cardiology Performance Lab, which allows clinicians to recreate the physical demands of intense competition and perform functional cardiovascular assessments so they can analyze the impact such activities could have on an athlete’s heart. The lab features advanced technologies such as industrial-level treadmills—with longer, wider and more durable belts to accommodate athletic individuals—high-end sport bike ergometers and the latest equipment for wireless electrocardiograms (EKGs) and VO2 max testing to measure an individual’s cardio-pulmonary fitness.

“The idea is to use the lab setting to recreate the stresses of athletic performance that may have triggered heart-related symptoms in active individuals and study them to see if we find anything worthy of concern,” said Dr. Emery, who also has a Master's degree in Exercise Physiology and Human Performance and serves as the national co-chair of the Sports and Exercise Cardiology section for the American College of Cardiology. “We can create customized tests for every athlete and any sport and incorporate their performance data into our clinical assessments. This level of examination gives us far more reliable information about a player’s physical limitations and helps to guide our medical treatment so we can hopefully return them to a safe level of activity, which is our ultimate goal.”

Although its Center for Cardiovascular Care in Athletics is new, IU Health already has a long track record of experience when it comes to caring for athletes’ hearts. For nearly three decades, IU Health cardiologists and clinicians have used their expertise to perform medical evaluations on NFL hopefuls – all of whom must pass a series of exams at IU Health Methodist Hospital before they can showcase their physical skills and 40-yard-dash times at the annual NFL Combine.

"IU Health has performed heart exams on NFL Combine athletes for nearly 30 years and has a great playbook for how to do it effectively," said Dr. Emery, who along with fellow IU Health cardiologist Richard Kovacs, M.D. will use the capabilities of the new program to continue the tradition of testing athletes coming to town for this year’s NFL Combine and share that same level of expertise with athletes of all levels who can now present their hearts for closer examination year-round.

To schedule an appointment with the IU Health Center for Cardiovascular Care in Athletics, contact 317.962.9455.

About Indiana University Health
Named among the "Best Hospitals in America" by U.S.News & World Report for 18 consecutive years, Indiana University Health is dedicated to providing a unified standard of preeminent, patient-centered care. A unique partnership with Indiana University School of Medicine – one of the nation's leading medical schools – gives our highly skilled physicians access to innovative treatments using the latest research and technology. Learn more at www.iuhealth.org.

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