Congenital heart diseases refers to the structural (anatomical) or physiological defects in the normal functioning of the heart as a result of birth defects that may be diagnosed soon after birth or may take years to produce full blown cardiac insufficiency. Valvular heart defects form the most common variety of congenital cardiac defect that is associated with high morbidity and mortality in adult years if no management options are employed. This is because the metabolic demands of the body increase with growth and development that poses more pressure on the heart leading to cardiac failure or circulatory deficits. With overall prevalence of 26.6%, it was suggested that only 12.1% cases can be detected by clinical evaluation. Among the most prevalent congenital cardiac defects, ventricular septal abnormalities comprise 17.3% of all congenital anomalies followed by atrial septal defects (6.0%) and other less common cardiac diseases. The mortality is highest with cyanotic heart diseases.
According to the research statistics reported by Julien I.E Hoffman, over 1 million patients were born with congenital heart defects (during 1940 to 2002). Considering the quality of medical services and surgical/ medical advancements, Hoffman suggested that the total number of survivors with mild heart disease (who may reach well into adulthood) is 750,000 with mild heart disease, 400,000 with moderate heart disease and 180,000 with severe disease (with treatment). Without any management or treatment the survival rate may fall to 400,000 with mild disease, 220,000 with moderate disease, and 30,000 with severe heart disease, suggesting very high mortality.
Congenital heart diseases are also associated with stunted growth and development in children marked by poor weight gain, failure to thrive and frequent hospitalizations while growing up. In addition, these children also develop frequent episodes of shortness of breath, rapid heart rate (also known as tachycardia) and attacks of fatigue associated with decreased exercise endurance.
Physical therapy and mild exercises are helpful in the growth and development of children born with congenital heart disease. It is extremely important not to initiate exercise therapies in these children without seeking the guidance from registered physical therapists who work in coordination with the pediatric cardiologist to deliver best exercise regimens in order to optimize health without overloading the heart. Generally, children and adults can perform moderate static exercises of mild intensity without any complications; however, healthcare providers strongly restrict weight lifting in pediatric aged children and even in adults born with cardiac defects. Caution should be maintained to avoid lifting weight of more than 25 pounds in children and more than 50 pounds in adults. Physical therapist and pediatric cardiologist must assess every child individually and advice customized exercises and treatments according to the severity of illness and overall physical health. Treadmill test, bicycling and echocardiography are mainly used as assessment tools as the risk of sudden death increases if vigorous activity is attempted in children born with aortic stenosis, cyanotic heart diseases and coarctation of the aorta.
Hardcore or traditional gym exercises increase cardiac output that may overload the heart and may increase the risk of complications or sudden cardiac death. On the contrary, exercises performed under the guidance of physical therapists serve multiple benefits. Exercise or physical activities are needed in order to build stamina and maintain exercise endurance especially in school going children who engage in physical activities with peers. Physical therapy improves the pace of mental and physical development that allows children to develop healthy social relationships with peers, muscle and motor coordination and mental concordance. Physical therapy and periodic assessments are also needed in order to know the physical capacity of child and to track worsening of cardiac defect with age (in order to avoid accidents or unwanted incidents at schools) by restricting excessive physical activity. In some children, healthcare providers delay surgery until the child crosses some developmental milestones; however, it is very important that until then child stays in best possible physical shape to lessen the risk of surgical complications.
According to the scientific peer-reviewed journal- American Family Physician there are 5 stages of physical activity recommendations of Physical Activity in Children with CHD, ranging from no restriction to extreme limitation of physical activity (wheel chair bound).
Without any physical therapy, the progression into the severe disability is fairly high. It is the duty of parents to promote healthy physical activity but make sure to prevent contact sports or vigorous activities that may affect cardiac functioning.