When an athlete runs, it shouldn’t be the heart that races

young girl crossing finish line

It was just another college track practice for this 18-year-old Washington University female student athlete. She finished a light warm-up run, but all of a sudden her heart started racing and she got very lightheaded. A track and field athlete who is in great shape – what was going on?

Washington University physician Mustafa Husaini, MD, a sports cardiologist, explains, “The team physician quickly recognized the possible signs of supraventricular tachycardia or SVT, which tends to occur more often in young women.

“The most common type of SVT is atrioventricular nodal reentry tachycardia, or AVNRT. Patients with AVNRT have episodes of abnormally fast heartbeats (commonly more than 150 beats a minute) that often start and end suddenly. The rapid heartbeat is the result of an extra pathway located in the AV node that causes a “short circuit” re-entry loop within the AV node.”

Other symptoms of AVNRT include:

  • Chest pain
  • Trouble catching breath
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion (especially in the elderly)

Immediate communication and coordination between the team physician and Dr. Husaini resulted in scheduling an office visit within a few days. Because of the sporadic nature of the condition, it can be hard to diagnose AVNRT during an office consultation. The young athlete was sent home with an event monitor for a longer-term collection of data. Combined with the patient’s health history and the results of the event monitor, Dr. Husaini was able to confirm a diagnosis of AVNRT and recommend ablation as treatment for this highly symptomatic athlete.

During ablation, an electrophysiologist threads catheters through the blood vessels to reach the heart. After localizing and confirming the area where the extra pathway is, they create a small scar at this area of heart tissue using  heat energy (radiofrequency). This blocks the faulty signals that are causing the arrhythmia.

While AVNRT is not considered life threatening, it is quite debilitating and adversely affects patients qualify of life. If certain other heart conditions are present, it can lead to more severe consequences.

Dr. Husaini adds, “Because this young athlete did not ignore her symptoms, she was able to be seen quickly by our office, be diagnosed, and get the necessary treatment. She is now back to running and competing – and is not having any more symptoms. She will require intermittent monitoring, but this condition will likely not cause her any major issues in the future.”

For more information, or to make an appointment with Dr. Husaini, please call 314-362-1291.

Patients are seen at:

Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital – Medical Building 3
1020 North Mason Road, Suite 100
Creve Coeur, MO  63141