5 Must-Know Facts About Cardiomyopathy

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Was this helpful?
  • NFL running back Damien Nash, marathon runner Ryan Shay, and All-American basketball star Hank Gathers were all in their 20s when they died suddenly. These three young elite athletes all had a condition known as cardiomyopathy. Cardiomyopathies cause your heart muscle to either stretch and weaken or become stiff and rigid. As a result, the heart’s chambers can’t pump efficiently, so your blood doesn’t circulate as it should. This can lead to irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias) or congestive heart failure. As many as one out of every 500 American adults has cardiomyopathy, but many don’t know they have it. That’s why it’s important to know the facts about cardiomyopathy and how to treat it before it’s too late.

  • 1
    There are four main cardiomyopathy types.
    Young couple going for run with running club together

    Dilated cardiomyopathy is the most common form of cardiomyopathy among adults and up to one-third of people with the condition inherit it. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is a frequent cause of sudden cardiac death, and the most common type among children. It’s most often genetic. Restrictive cardiomyopathy is the rarest form of cardiomyopathy, particularly among children. Rather than the muscle enlarging, the ventricle wall becomes stiff and can’t stretch and move as it should to pump blood through. Arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy is another rare type, but it affects mostly young adults and teens.

  • 2
    You could have cardiomyopathy and not know it.
    Woman Resting Her Feet

    Many people live with cardiomyopathy without any symptoms.  Sometimes, people learn they have cardiomyopathy by accident. Testing for another health problem, such as a chest x-ray, may reveal an enlarged heart. Too often, people may dismiss symptoms they think are mild or not worth mentioning to a doctor. But seek prompt medical care if you experience shortness of breath, fatigue, irregular heartbeats, chest pain, fainting, or swelling in your ankles and feet that spreads to your legs, abdomen or neck. Because cardiomyopathy can run in families, close family members (parents, siblings and children) should be screened if the condition is diagnosed in a family member.

  • 3
    There is a push for better physical testing for young athletes.
    Boy Drinking Water

    About 66 young athletes die each year in the United States of cardiac arrest, and autopsies show one of the most common causes is undiagnosed hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Some parent-led groups are pushing for routine heart screening tests for teens who participate in competitive sports in an effort to prevent such deaths. However, experts are divided as to whether tests like echocardiograms (EKGs) can provide enough information to prevent cardiac arrests.

  • 4
    Cardiomyopathy is the leading cause for heart transplants.

    Most heart transplants are needed because of cardiomyopathy, for both adults and children, but it depends on the type of cardiomyopathy you have. Transplants are rarely performed for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, unless you also have features associated with dilated cardiomyopathy or a type of rapid irregular heartbeat that can’t be brought under control with medication. However, since treating restrictive cardiomyopathy is more difficult, more people with this condition are being been considered for transplants. And dilated cardiomyopathy is one of the leading causes for heart transplants for children who do not respond to any other type of therapy.

  • 5
    Cardiomyopathy research is ongoing.
    Female athlete leaving starting blocks

    There are few things more frightening than seeing a seemingly healthy young person, especially an athlete, die suddenly on a playing field. And because cardiomyopathy strikes so many young people in the prime of their life, there’s an urgency to find out why this happens and how to stop it. Researchers are looking at the different causes, especially how cardiomyopathy may be hereditary. Other researchers are looking for ways to identify cardiomyopathy early, and how to treat the condition itself rather than just the symptoms.

Was this helpful?
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Sep 29
View All Heart Health Articles
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. When Sudden Death Strikes Athletes. NPR. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=17971296
  2. What Is Cardiomyopathy? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Part of the National Institutes of Health. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/cm
  3. Other Related Conditions – Cardiomyopathy. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/cardiomyopathy.htm
  4. Cardiomyopathy: Symptoms, diagnosis and treatment. Harvard Health Publications. http://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-disease-overview/cardiomyopathy-symptoms-diagnosis-and-treatment
  5. Research and Scholarly Activities. Yale School of Medicine. https://medicine.yale.edu/intmed/cardio/clinical/cardiomyopathy/research.aspx
  6. Current Cardiomyopathy Research. Share From Cure to Care. https://theshareregistry.org/latest-research-hcm-dcm/
  7. Maron BJ, Doerer JJ, Haas TS, Tierney DM, Mueller FO. Sudden Deaths in Young Competitive Athletes. Circulation. 2009;119:1085-1092
  8. Originally published March 2, 2009. http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/119/8/1085.full
  9. Screening young athletes for heart disease. American Heart Association. http://news.heart.org/screening-young-athletes-for-heart-disease/
  10. FYI: 5 facts about pediatric cardiomyopathy. AAP News. American Academy of Pediatrics. http://www.aappublications.org/news/aapnewsmag/2016/09/09/FYICardio090916.full.pdf
  11. Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. https://optn.transplant.hrsa.gov/data/organ-datasource/heart/
  12. Hyptertrophic cardiomyopathy. American Heart Association. https://www.heart.org/idc/groups/heart-public/@wcm/@hcm/documents/downloadable/ucm_312225.pdf