Houston Methodist. Leading Medicine

Medical Issues for Athletes


Not all medical issues affecting athletes are related to their bones and joints. At Houston Methodist Orthopedics & Sports Medicine, our primary-care sports medicine specialists are experienced in treating many of the most common medical issues affecting athletes of all ages, including:


Asthma is a medical problem that causes a restriction of airflow in and out of the lungs. Athletes with asthma may complain of wheezing, coughing, difficulty breathing, and poor performance. Many things, including exercise, can be a trigger for asthma. Without treatment, it can be a very dangerous condition, but most athletes can be managed very well with medications that can relieve symptoms and improve performance. The symptoms of asthma can be caused by other problems, however, so it is important that you obtain the correct diagnosis before starting a treatment plan.

Heart Problems in Athletes

Like any other muscle, the heart changes with exercise. Those changes are usually positive, but in some rare cases, exercise can be dangerous to the heart. In young athletes, a condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is the most common problem, but in athletes over age 35, coronary artery disease becomes much more likely.

Symptoms of heart problems can include chest pain or tightness, palpitations or an irregular heartbeat, fainting, and generally decreased performance. Seeing a specialist who deals with active people for your pre-participation physical can help you understand your risk and exercise safely. We can also perform specific exercise testing to determine the source of your problems and direct a treatment program that allows you to be as active as you can be.


Many athletes take supplements to improve health and performance. Billions of dollars are spent each year in the United States on products that advertise the ability to improve appearance, performance, and health. Some supplements, such as creatine and glucosamine, are useful in certain populations, but many are useless and have no science to back up their claims.

If you are taking a supplement, or if you are considering using supplements to improve your performance, talk to the sports medicine specialists at Houston Methodist. We have the experience and knowledge to help you see through the advertising and decide whether a supplement is right for you.

Runner's Stitch

Many of us have experienced a "stitch," or pain in the side that comes on with prolonged exercise, usually running. This problem is not dangerous but can be quite painful. Runner's stitch is similar to other muscle cramps and is thought to be related to localized sodium imbalances. It can also be caused by gastrointestinal cramping. Slowing your pace, stretching, and increasing your salt intake can often help. If the problem persists, see a sports medicine physician for further evaluation.

Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps

Severe, painful muscle cramps in the legs, back, and abdomen that arise after prolonged exercise in the heat are very common. They occur mostly at the beginning of a season in athletes who are less accustomed to the heat. We used to think this was related to dehydration from too much sweating, but we now know that a loss of sodium is the most important factor.

It is important to stay hydrated and drink lots of fluids, but the addition of extra salt in the diet, in foods such as pretzels, Chinese food, pickles and other high-sodium foods, can help decrease the incidence of cramps. If you experience a lot of cramping with exercise, you'll want to rest, stretch, increase your water and salt intake, and get to a cool environment. If the cramping persists, seek medical care immediately, as cramping can be related to a more severe condition called rhabdomyolysis.


Rhabdomyolysis is a condition that causes severe muscle damage and is often brought on by extreme exercise. When the muscles are severely damaged, they break down and release products into the blood stream that can damage the kidneys and liver. This condition can be life-threatening if not treated appropriately. If you develop severe muscle pains and notice dark urine after an episode of extreme training, seek medical care immediately.

Heat Stroke

Heat stroke is a deadly condition brought on by too much exercise in the heat. Patients with heat stroke have lost the ability to regulate their body temperature and will often have a temperature over 106 degrees. Patients with heat stroke will usually be sweating profusely, be disoriented, and often will have nausea and vomiting.

Prolonged exercise in a hot and humid environment is the biggest risk factor for heat stroke. Treatment involves rapidly cooling the patient and transporting him or her to the hospital as quickly as possible. Prevention, however, is much more important. If you must exercise in the heat, take frequent breaks, drink plenty of fluids, dress appropriately in clothing that allows for evaporation of sweat, and stop exercising if you begin to feel light headed, dizzy, or sick to your stomach.

Overtraining Syndrome

Overtraining syndrome has been recognized as a cause of decreased performance in elite athletes. The prolonged periods of training required for participation in sports at high levels can lead to changes in the brain and immune system that we have termed "overtraining syndrome." The athlete may note frequent infections, chronic fatigue, depressed mood, poor sleep, and decreased performance, despite adequate training and nutrition. Diagnosis can be difficult and treatment may involve prolonged rest, changes in training routine, and medications.

To schedule an appointment with one of our primary-care sports medicine specialists, visit the Request an Appointment page or contact us.

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