Afterward, the researchers analyzed the scans and, using widely accepted diagnostic criteria, concluded that four of the young athletes, representing 15 percent of the group, displayed symptoms of myocarditis, which is an inflammation of the heart muscle known, occasionally, to be triggered by viral infections. In severe cases, myocarditis causes permanent heart damage, but it also may resolve without lingering problems.
The four athletes were men, and two had experienced mild symptoms during their coronavirus infection; the other two had been asymptomatic. None reported any symptoms of cardiac concerns.
The hearts of another eight of the athletes, mostly men, contained slight signs of scarring or other abnormalities, Dr. Rajpal says.
It is “impossible to know,” though, whether the athletes’ Covid infections caused any of these seeming cardiac glitches, he points out, since the researchers did not have baseline heart scans from before their illnesses.
There are other reasons, too, to be cautious about linking coronavirus infections to any possible issues on the athletes’ heart scans, says Dr. Aaron Baggish, a sports cardiologist at Harvard University, director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at the Massachusetts General Hospital Heart Center and medical director for the Boston Marathon, who has extensively researched athletes’ hearts. He was not involved with the new study, but familiar with it.
Competitive athletes’ hearts tend to look and function differently than the hearts of other people, Dr. Baggish says. So, these athletes’ hearts might be perfectly normal for competitors in their sports, apparent blips and all. To know if the coronavirus might somehow have affected their cardiac muscles, the athletes’ heart scans would need to be compared to those of a control group of uninfected collegiate athletes. The current study did not include a control group.
Dr. Baggish is launching a national registry of cardiac issues among collegiate athletes that might be related to Covid infections, he says. The registry will be housed at Harvard and cover Division I athletes nationwide. The resulting data should help researchers and clinicians to better understand whether and how Covid infections affect athletes’ hearts, he says.
In the meantime, Dr. Rajpal says that anyone who has tested positive for the coronavirus, including athletes, should be aware of the possibility, however slight, of cardiac involvement. Most people will be able to return to exercise and sports after several weeks of rest (and isolation, of course) without any problems, he says. But if you notice symptoms of potential heart involvement, such as chest pain or shortness of breath, obviously, consult a doctor.