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Weightlifting Death Risk

Gym rats beware: Heavy lifting may put you at risk of sudden death.

By Joyce Gramza
Jul 18, 2006 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:53 AM


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Scientists are calling for widespread heart screening of people before they begin weight training. That's based on new evidence that lifting more than half your body weight could put you at risk of sudden death.

Yale New Haven Hospital surgeon John Elefteriades and colleagues report in an advance online study in the journal Cardiology that they've documented a link between heavy lifting and torn aortas—the heart's main artery—in young, healthy patients who had previously undiagnosed aneurysms, or enlargement of the aorta.

In a group of 31 patients who had an undetected aneurysm and subsequent torn aorta from heavy lifting, 10 of them died. Elefteriades defines heavy lifting as lifting more than half your body weight.

He first noticed this pattern several years ago when he came across patients like Bill Linski, who recalls the great workout he had at age 21—the one that nearly killed him.

"In fact, I had probably one of the best chest and tricep workouts that I probably ever had," Linski says. "I felt good, I felt strong, my normal routine was going to the gym every day."

But the intense chest pains he had later that day were anything but normal. It turned out that pumping iron had pumped up his blood pressure, straining his enlarged aorta enough to tear it. Linski was airlifted to Yale New Haven Hospital where Elefteriades performed lifesaving surgery.

Sadly, Elefteriades says similar scenarios all too often end in the death of a healthy young man. "A problem and a tragedy arises in the fact that it's uncommon for physicians to think of an internal tear of the aorta in healthy young athletes," he says.

He and his team first reported this possible link in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2003. Their new report presents much stronger evidence and led to the doctors' new recommendations, which he says are based solely on trying to prevent such terrible losses: "For heavy strength training involving weight lifting or similar activities like pushups, we're recommending screening for unknown or undetected aortic aneurysm."

Elefteriades says that includes people who do heavy lifting on the job.

The screening test they recommend is a heart echo exam, technically called transthoracic echocardiography, also commonly called a heart ultrasound. The authors say that while they recognize implementing their advice would entail screening huge numbers of people, "the alternative is to accept that every year we will lose some young athletes because of unknown enlargement of their aorta," Elefteriades says.

Elefteriades, who enjoys weightlifting, notes that he and his team strongly encourage weight training to maintain muscle mass and bone health.

And with his aorta repaired, Linski, now 28, can lift with no fear. Now looking forward to experiencing fatherhood, he hopes Elefteriades's research will spare others. "If I can say anything," he says, "I'm just extremely blessed and thank God every night."

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