Abnormal electrocardiogram findings are common in NBA players

Bottom Line: About 1 in 5 professional basketball players had abnormalities on their electrocardiograms (ECGs), some but not all of which were explained by changes in the shape and size of their hearts as a result of athletic training.

Why The Research Is Interesting: Because of rare but high-profile instances of cardiac death among professional athletes there is intense interest in identifying test markers of abnormal heart function that may put players at risk. The National Basketball Association (NBA) mandates annual cardiac screening to ensure the safety of its players. Athletes are known to have changes in their hearts and ECG patterns appropriate to their intense athletic training, so athlete-specific criteria have been developed to distinguish normal from abnormal ECG findings. This study investigates how those criteria perform in NBA athletes.

Who and When: NBA athletes (n = 404) who participated in the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 seasons, and participants in the 2014 and 2015 NBA predraft combines (n = 115).

What (Study Measures): ECG findings for NBA athletes using three athlete-specific ECG criteria, with corresponding echocardiogram findings

How (Study Design): This is a descriptive study, so the researchers did not gather information about underlying causes for the findings and cannot make conclusions about their medical or athletic significance.

Authors: David J. Engel, M.D., of the Columbia University Medical Center, New York, and coauthors.


Compared to other athletes, abnormal ECG findings were found in:

  • 81 NBA athletes (15.6 percent) using 2017 criteria
  • 108 NBA athletes (20.8 percent) using 2014 criteria
  • 131 NBA athletes (25.2 percent) using 2012 criteria

Increased left ventricular relative wall thickness (RWT) was associated with abnormal ECG findings. Abnormal T-wave inversions (a type of abnormal ECG finding) were present in 32 athletes (6.2 percent), and was associated with smaller left ventricular cavity size and increased RWT.

Study Limitations: The results cannot be generalized to athletes in other sports and to youth basketball players.


Related material:

The following related elements also are available on the For The Media website:

  • The editorial, "Effects of International Electrocardiographic Interpretation Recommendations on African American Athletes," by Sanjay Sharma, M.D., F.R.C.P., University of London

Previously published by JAMA Cardiology and JAMA:

  • Athletic Cardiac Remodeling in US Professional Basketball Players
  • Cardiac Variables in Professional Basketball Players
  • Interassociation Task Force Punts Decision on Universal ECG Screenings for Athletes

For more details and to read the full study, please visit the For The Media website.


Editor's Note: Please see the article for additional information, including other authors, author contributions and affiliations, financial disclosures, funding and support, etc.

Media Contact

Lauren Browdy
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