Long COVID is rare in college athletes, but those who have had COVID-19 should see a doctor if they have chest pain during activity, the authors of new study advise.
The extent and effects of persistent symptoms in athletes after COVID-19 infection have been unclear, so researchers went searching for answers.
"For the vast majority of athletes, this study shows that a return to play is possible without lingering COVID symptoms. But any new chest pain or cardiopulmonary symptom should be taken seriously," said co-senior author Dr. Jonathan Drezner, director of the Center for Sports Cardiology at the University of Washington in Seattle. "Even if initial cardiac testing is negative after a COVID-19 illness, chest pain while exerting yourself should be evaluated."
He and his colleagues looked at nearly 3,600 athletes from 44 U.S. colleges and universities who had had COVID. In all, 1.2% had symptoms that lasted for more than three weeks after initial illness or symptom onset.
After returning to exercise, 4% of the athletes had symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, fatigue and heart palpitations during activity, figures that researchers considered low. The findings were recently published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
It's long been known that COVID-19 can affect the heart and cause dangerous inflammation called myocarditis. Of the 24 athletes in the study who had chest pain during activity and underwent cardiac MRI (CMR, or cardiovascular magnetic resonance imaging), probable or definite COVID-19 heart involvement was found in five participants (20.8%).
No cases of probable or definite COVID heart involvement were found in athletes who had symptoms other than chest pain during activity.
The authors said the finding supports the use of CMR to assess chest pain in athletes who have had COVID-19.
"[The study provides] useful information as we continue to see so many athletes -- collegiate or otherwise -- returning to sports," said study co-author Dr. Aaron Baggish, director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
"While it's heartening to see that the risk for persistent COVID symptoms in these athletes is low, we should keep monitoring players and checking in with them on how they're feeling once they're back in action," he said in a hospital news release.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on long COVID.
SOURCE: Massachusetts General Hospital, news release, Nov. 11, 2021