What is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy?
Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is a heart condition that causes the walls of your heart to thicken. In many cases, it can also cause the heart walls to stiffen, which reduces the amount of blood that can flow into your heart and be pumped back to your body with each heartbeat.
HCM is the most common genetic heart condition and it can affect people of any age. An estimated 1 in 500 people have HCM, although a large percentage of those cases remain undiagnosed.
There are two major forms of HCM. Obstructive HCM is when the thickened heart walls block or reduce blood flow. With nonobstructive HCM, the heart muscle is thickened but blood flow is unaffected.
Understanding HCM and talking to your doctor about any HCM symptoms or hereditary history can help you stay on top of the condition and prevent complications.
Why HCM is dangerous for young adults and athletes.
HCM is the leading cause of sudden cardiac death (SCD) in young athletes. SCD disproportionately affects Black athletes and is more frequently linked to competitive sports that involve sudden movements, like football or basketball. Most people show no signs or symptoms before SCD.
The symptoms of HCM can vary. Some people don’t experience any symptoms, while others primarily feel symptoms during exercise or exertion. Symptoms can also worsen over time.
Knowing the signs and symptoms of HCM is important because an early diagnosis can lead to better health outcomes.
Symptoms may include:
- Chest pain, especially with physical exertion
- Shortness of breath
- Light headedness
- Arrhythmias (abnormal heartbeat)
- Swelling in the ankles, feet, legs and abdomen
HCM can also cause other health problems. People with HCM are at a higher risk of heart conditions like atrial fibrillation, stroke and blood clots. It can also lead to heart failure and sudden cardiac death.
If you have HCM, you may need to make lifestyle changes, like limiting your physical activity. HCM can also lead to long-term complications, which can make it more difficult to function and reduce your quality of life.
HCM is a genetic condition, so it’s important to know your family’s heart-health history, which can help your doctor with a diagnosis and help you catch it early. Find out if anyone in your family has been diagnosed with HCM, heart failure or cardiac arrest, and let your health care team know. If someone in your family has been diagnosed with HCM, it’s important for all first-degree relatives, including children, siblings and parents to get checked for HCM.
What to do if you have symptoms
Diagnosing HCM early can help you prevent complications and manage the condition so you can enjoy a higher quality of life . Talk to your doctor if you struggle with any of the major HCM symptoms, including shortness of breath, chest pain or heart palpitations, fatigue or fainting. And definitely let your doctor know if you have a family history of HCM or sudden cardiac death, so you can get checked for HCM.
If someone in your family has HCM, your entire family may want to consider genetic testing, as it can help catch HCM early and inform and guide any at-risk members of your family.
A cardiologist or pediatric cardiologist will diagnose HCM through a physical exam, medical and family history and specialized tests.
An echocardiogram is one of the most important diagnostic tests for HCM. It lets your doctor check the thickness of your heart muscle and see how well blood is flowing through the heart. Your doctor will also probably listen to your heart and lungs with a stethoscope for a swishing or whooshing sound, which could indicate a problem with blood flow through your heart.
If you aren’t experiencing symptoms, you can manage HCM by staying active, eating a healthy diet, maintaining a normal weight, getting good quality sleep and not smoking. Prioritizing a heart-healthy lifestyle can help you prevent complications and other heart conditions, like stroke or heart failure.
There’s one disease-specific medication available to help treat HCM symptoms. Mavacamten, which was approved by the FDA in 2022, is used to treat the obstructive form of HCM for people who have symptoms. Your doctor may also help you manage symptoms through other medications and both surgical and nonsurgical procedures.
Living with HCM
People with HCM can enjoy a long and healthy life. It’s vital to consult your health care team if you experience symptoms or have a family history of HCM. An early diagnosis and proper management can lead to the best outcomes.
Learn more about HCM.
AHA’s HCM awareness and education in Athletes is made possible in part by a grant from the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation.