A case report of profound atrioventricular block in an endurance athlete: how far do you go?

Abela M; Bonello J; Sammut MA;

European heart journal. Case reports [Eur Heart J Case Rep] 2022 May 02; Vol. 6 (5), pp. ytac190.
Date of Electronic Publication: 2022 May 02 (Print Publication: 2022).

Background: Athletes presenting with 1st-degree atrioventricular block (AVB) on 12-lead electrocardiogram (ECG) may present a diagnostic conundrum, especially when significantly prolonged and associated with higher degrees of block. A pragmatic stepwise approach to the evaluation of these patients is, therefore, crucial.
Case Summary: A 19-year-old waterpolo player was referred for assessment of a 1st-degree heart block and one isolated episode of syncope. All other cardiac investigations were within normal limits except for a 24-h ambulatory ECG which showed Mobitz 1 AVB and episodes of 2:1 block occurring in the context of Wenchebach. An electrophysiological study (EPS) was performed which effectively excluded infranodal conductive tissue disease, confirming physiological intranodal block.
Discussion: The increase in vagal tone is one of the physiological adaptations to an increased demand in cardiac output in athletes, which explains the presence of 1st-degree AVB in up to 7.5% of athletes. The presence of 2:1 AVB on 24 h ECG raises doubts whether the 1st-degree AVB on resting ECG is pathological or physiological, especially considering this particular patient had suffered an episode of syncope. When this diagnostic uncertainty persists despite non-invasive investigations, including cardiopulmonary exercise testing, invasive EPS may be required to assess the refractoriness of the AV node and at what level within the cardiac conductive system block occurs. The electrophysiological study can effectively rule out infranodal disease by confirming physiological intranodal block using incremental atrial pacing.