Houston Texans running back Arian Foster is saying there's nothing to a report by Alex Flanagan of the NFL Network (via NFL.com) that he could be facing surgery to correct an irregular heartbeat. But if he were to have the procedure, it probably wouldn't affect his ability to play in the NFL.
Foster has had some issues with an irregular heartbeat, including one episode in Week 16. He didn't miss time and had no physical or performance issues. We don't know what triggers the episodes in Foster, but his symptomology—racing heartbeat and shortness of breath—doesn't mesh well with his job description.
A procedure to address irregular heartbeat is not normally done immediately. The patient has to be prepped for the surgery with the use of blood thinners, which normally takes two-to-three weeks. If Foster were to be treated, he likely would undergo what is known as radiofrequency ablation.
In this procedure, a special catheter is threaded through the body, usually through an opening in the groin or shoulder and up to the heart. At that point, the surgeon will use a special tool on the catheter, akin to a microwave, to essentially burn or scar a very small area of the heart. This eliminates the area of muscle that is either causing the arrhythmia or that is transmitting the signal.
I spoke with Dr. Shephal Doshi, Director of Electrophysiology and Pacing at Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, about this procedure. While he has not examined Foster, Dr. Doshi certainly understands this type of case. "The key here is that unlike many things, this is curable," Dr. Doshi told me. "Most times we talk about improvements or managing things, but with ablation, we can cure an arrhythmia.
"Medication usually isn't used, because in most cases, it's anti-performance. Someone in Foster's position would need to go at the highest level. If he had this, he would only need a couple days in bed and a couple weeks off, though he could continue doing cardio. If he had it now, he would be ready [for the next scheduled activity.]"
There is a small risk that he would need a "touch up" if the first procedure didn't clear things up. Dr. Doshi told me that this occurs in about 20 percent of cases.
With or without this procedure, he's in more of a "rest phase" and will continue to give the rest of his body a break. Foster should have no issues gearing back up or making it to the next scheduled activities with the Texans.
Other professional athletes have had a similar issue. Perhaps the most famous is Hakeem Olajuwon, who would have his episodes triggered by drinking water that was too cold. Punter Steve Weatherford, now of the Giants, had a cardiac ablation performed in 2010 and has had no problems since.
Super Bowl coach Jim Harbaugh had a similar procedure done in 2012 to correct an atrial "flutter." He admitted at that point that he had undergone an ablation during his playing career and had no trouble at all in coming back.
Mets fans might remember that pitcher Jon Niese was scheduled to have an RF ablation but ended up not having the procedure after medication seemed to clear up the symptoms. Carlos Silva of the Cubs did have the procedure performed and had no problems, as did Kenley Jansen of the Dodgers.
Given the relative ease of the procedure and the long list of players that have been able to return to their respective levels quickly, the outlook for Foster would be very positive if he were to have surgery.
Clearly any heart problem is serious, but medical technology has progressed to a point where a problem like this that could have been a lifelong issue and perhaps a career-ender is now unlikely to even mess with Foster's dinner plans.
All quotes in this piece were obtained first-hand unless otherwise noted.
Will Carroll has been writing about sports injuries for 12 years. His work has appeared at SI.com, ESPN.com and Football Outsiders.