When fatigue masks a serious health risk

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Even elite athletes experience a drop in performance levels as they get older – but one former leading cyclist warns that fatigue and tiredness could be a sign of a serious health problem.

Andre Clayden, who has won national and state medals in mountain biking, road cycling and cyclo-cross, discovered he had a congenital heart disease after suffering a stroke.

He had noticed he had been ‘slowing down’, while also having headaches and blackouts, but attributed his fatigue issues to ageing.

"I didn't think it was anything serious because although my fitness levels were decreasing, I was still able to train,” Mr Clayden said.

However, tests showed he had a hole in the heart that allows small blood clots to bypass the lungs and enter the brain – known as Patent Foramen Ovale (PFO). 

He went to a neurologist and a cardiologist, who wanted to treat him with medication and lifestyle changes – but a visit to Gold Coast Private Hospital’s Dr Ross Sharpe helped put him back on track to a healthy life.

"I was terrified, because I was being told there was still a good chance I could have another stroke. Once I was referred to Dr Sharpe, the anxiety lifted because he had a solution to my problem,” Mr Clayden said.

"He ran two diagnostic tests to confirm my PFO, and two weeks later I had the procedure to permanently close the hole. The procedure took about one hour, was non-invasive and I only needed an overnight stay at the hospital," the Queenslander added.

Andre Clayden is back on his bike and competing after his heart procedure at Gold Coast Private Hospital.

Dr Ross Sharpe explains "The presence of a large PFO can be a cause of stroke but can also result in a myriad of clinical symptoms. These symptoms can include  a feeling of breathlessness or fatigue performing normal day to day tasks, such as hanging out the washing or going for a jog.

"For some people, this is a chronic and unremitting problem because the PFO can cause a mild, but sometimes a significant decrease in circulating oxygen levels during exertion.

"Fatigue, pain and headaches is what you might expect to feel after a hard training session. Most people put this down to getting older, but if the symptoms are profound it could be a sign of something more sinister.

"People who experience chronic breathlessness, or who reach a fitness level but just can't increase their fitness no matter how much they train should be tested for a PFO.

"Unfortunately, people regularly dismiss red flags either because they lead a healthy lifestyle or mistakenly believe they are too fit or too young to have a stroke, but we often see patients at the peak of their fitness and as young as 15 succumbing.

"The symptoms of a PFO need to be more widely recognised so that people, including medical practitioners, know what to look for."

Mr Clayden said the operation had significantly improved his life.

“The biggest change I have noticed, which started soon after the operation, is how much calmer and clearer I am every day.

"I am back on my bike and have just started competing again. It's been a long road to recovery using many different processes and I've got a lot of people to thank,” he said.

Read more: A better way to prevent strokes? 

Read more: Flying heart surgeon saves lives in remote areas 

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