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Study: Heart damage found in athletes who had mild cases of COVID-19

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Close to 80 UFC athletes have reportedly tested positive for COVID-19

UFC Fight Night: Overeem v Sakai Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

The reported number of UFC fighters who have tested positive for COVID-19 is closing in on 80 as the promotion heads toward its first fight card of 2021. One thing the UFC numbers don’t reveal is how many of those fighters are suffering from heart issues related to the novel coronavirus.

Between June and August, Ohio State University looked at 26 athletes from the following sports: football, soccer, lacrosse, basketball, and track who tested positive for COVID-19. None of the athletes required hospitalization or received COVID-19–specific antiviral therapy.

According to the study, which is entitled, “Cardiovascular Magnetic Resonance Findings in Competitive Athletes Recovering From COVID-19 Infection,” the athletes underwent cardiac magnetic resonance (CMR).

“Cardiac magnetic resonance imaging has the potential to identify a high-risk cohort for adverse outcomes and may, importantly, risk-stratify athletes for safe participation. Recent studies have raised concerns of myocardial inflammation after recovery from coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), even in asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic patients.”

What the study found was four (15%) had CMR findings suggestive of myocarditis and eight others (30.8%) exhibited late gadolinium enhancement (LGE) without T2 elevation, which suggests prior myocardial injury.

Myocarditis is an inflammation of the heart muscle. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Myocarditis can affect your heart muscle and your heart’s electrical system, reducing your heart’s ability to pump and causing rapid or abnormal heart rhythms.” Signs and symptoms of the condition include, “chest pain, fatigue, shortness of breath, and arrhythmias.”

A July report entitled, “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) and Cardiac Injury—Reply” said, “Myocardial injury is a common phenomenon in patients with COVID-19, which is the key evidence that SARS-CoV-2 infection can affect the heart. Its prevalence rate was 19.7% in our report of 416 hospitalized patients with COVID-19. Recently, a meta-analysis summarized that at least 8.0% of patients with COVID-19 experienced acute myocardial injury, and the rate was roughly 13-fold higher in patients with severe disease treated in the intensive care unit compared with patients without severe disease.”

The Ohio State University report seems to show that heart damage is an area of concern for athletes who tested positive for COVID-19, even if those athletes suffered mild symptoms of short-term infections.

“Twelve athletes (26.9%; including 7 female individuals) reported mild symptoms during the short-term infection (sore throat, shortness of breath, myalgias, fever), while others were asymptomatic.”

In August, Bloody Elbow reached out to the UFC and the Nevada State Athletic Commission to see either was going to institute testing for heart damage related to COVID-19.

Executive director Bob Bennett replied via email, “NSAC is familiar with the various protocols for professional athletes. At this time there is no plan to change our protocols for Closed System Events/Bubble. We continue to follow the science behind COVID-19 and will consider changes accordingly.”

The UFC did not reply to a request for its plans on possible additional testing.

According to the information listed on the website for the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports, Nevada does not require a cardiac exam for fighters under 36. Fighters 36 or older have to supply (among other items) an EKG and a chest x-ray.