Mario feared heart attack

Mario Lemieux decided to publicly talk about his heart problem that affected his illustrious...

Mario Lemieux decided to publicly talk about his heart problem that affected his illustrious career. (QMI Agency/Dave Abel)

STEPHANE ALARIE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:16 AM ET

MONTREAL - The heart problems that forced Mario Lemieux to retire from pro hockey for the last time in January 2006 were much more serious than what was reported at the time.

The former NHL superstar, now part owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, told Reader's Digest that he had been suffering from atrial fibrillation. This type of arrhythmia causes a fast and irregular contraction of the heart's auricles, causing an irregular heartbeat.

"It was scary enough," said Lemieux. "I could get up in the morning and my heart suddenly started beating at 160 or 170 (beats) per minute. Sometimes it was going so fast that I thought I was having a heart attack."

Lemieux said he initially had attributed the irregularities to stress or dehydration as he trained during the summer of 2005. But the problems became more intense, causing symptoms such as dizziness, and happened even as he slept. He consulted doctors, who were able to identify the source of the palpitations.

Lemieux said he was concerned about his health until he finally received a diagnosis.

"It's scary when you don't know what's happening and it involves your heart."

Private by nature, Lemieux said he decided to publicly talk about this health problem that affected his illustrious career - he also battled cancer and chronic back pain - in an effort to inform the public.

"It's important that people see a doctor when they feel symptoms like that; some wait too long before doing it," he said.

In his case, Lemieux said learning about atrial fibrillation helped him deal with the situation and he encouraged people to inform themselves.

"Once you are getting treatment, you can have a normal life," he said.

Atrial fibrillation can be treated using electric impulses or a medication that helps return the heart to a normal rhythm. In some cases, such as for Lemieux, an innovative surgical procedure can also fix the problem.

- About 250,000 people in the country are affected by atrial fibrillation, resulting in some 43,000 hospitalizations every year.

- Excerpts of Lemieux's interview can be found at www.readersdigest.ca.


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