Does Michael Phelps have Marfan syndrome?

Michael Phelps holds the record for the most gold medals won at a single Olympics, a total of eight, and is arguably the best Olympic athlete ever.

With all NBC ads about "giant feet" and the highly publicized facts about his physical features, some of my colleagues pointed out that Mr. Phelps has quite a few features of Marfan syndrome.

His height is 6'4" and his arm span of 6'7" is greater than his height. According to Cleveland Leader, "that is a ratio of 1.04, which is just shy of the clinical cutoff of 1.05. He is also said to have hypermobile joints in his knees, shoulders and ankles." Mr. Phepls also has large hands and feet. Marfan syndrome is an inherited connective-tissue disorder which presents with tall stature, ectopia lentis, mitral valve prolapse, aortic root dilatation, and aortic dissection.

In his book, "Michael Phelps: Beneath the Surface" written by both Phelps and Brian Cazeneuve, he writes about the scare of the possible diagnosis of Marfan syndrome:
"My heart rate was accelerating and Bob suggested I see the doctor. Because I was very flexible and had long hands and feet. I had some early symptoms of Marfan Syndrome, a disease that affects connective tissues and can be fatal if there is leakage to the vessels that lead to the heart. If you reach out your arms and form a T and your wingspan is longer than your height, you can be at risk. In my case, those measurements have always been very close. I didn't know at the time why the doctor decided to look into this. My mom and Bob didn't want me to freak out, so they told me it was simply a good idea for young athletes to have an EKG test in order to look at the heart.

Fortunately everything was, and still is, okay. I have been tested once a year ever since at John's Hopkins under the direction of Dr. Peter Roe and the tissues are strong, the aortic rout is clear and my heart is in good shape - as long as my Baltimore Ravens are winning."
From page 66, Michael Phelps: Beneath the Surface, Google Books.

From the description above, it looks like Michael Phelps does not fulfill the criteria of a full-blown Marfan syndrome according to his doctors. If he were to have Marfan syndrome however, strenuous exercise would be generally contraindicated according to the American Heart Association.

The Age/Yahoo comments on "another bodily trait might also have helped transform Phelps into the perfect, indefatigable swimming machine. In sixth grade, the Maryland native was diagnosed with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder and prescribed Ritalin to curb his near boundless energy.

After growing frustrated with the drowsiness caused by the drug, Phelps turned to sport, where the symptoms that so agitated teachers greatly impressed coaches.

"I had so many outlets for energy release. I'd go from a lacrosse game to a baseball game to swim practice," he wrote."

We all want our heroes to be perfect but they never are. Their biggest strength however lies in overcoming their own shortcomings and giving inspiration for millions around the world to do the same.

Image source: Wikipedia, public domain.

Related reading:
Joint hypermobility syndrome: Easily Missed? BMJ, 2011.
Phelps: Since age 7, "I've spent 20 years in the pool". He will retire after 2012 Olympics, plans to avoid water http://goo.gl/Rjzzm

22 comments:

  1. tina from Atlanta8/20/2008 3:12 PM

    It is still quite possible that Michael Phelps as a connective tissue disorder. There are several, Marfan's, Ehler Danlos, Loeys Dietz and Hypermobile Joint disorder. One doesn't have to have all the features that go along with these.

    I have two daughters who were thought to have Marfan's. They didn't quite fit but we knew they had something. After seeing an article about Loeys Dietz Syndrome, (named after the world reknowned Marfan expert at John Hopkins who recognized this was a related but separate disorder in 2005/06), we drove up to Baltimore for an evaluation and testing. BOTH my daughters have Loeys Dietz though theirs seems to have a mild outward expression. They do have scoliosis, wingspan greater than height, fatigue, long fingers, disproportionate body, hypermobile joints, etc.

    Swimming is probably one of the best sports for people with a CTD. Most doctors enourage exercise but not anything where there are contact/impact sports. As long as the heart is checked regularly and there are no problems we have had no restrictions put on my daughters.

    The hypermobile joints go along with more stretchy blood vessels and cause the blood to pool in the body and thus not circulate as it should. This in turn causes the fatigue problem. Exercise is good, taking something to retain water, increasing water intake, increasing salt can help a person to retain water and thus help the vessels to fill up and boost blood circulation . This doesn't help for all with this fatigue problem and should be done under a doctors supervision.

    Michael definitely needs to have further testing and perhaps see Dr. Dietz himself right there in Baltimore. I hope that if he has it, that he will help educate and raise awareness.

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  2. My 24-year-old son is 6'9" with huge hands, although, that's just an inch taller than his dad, but still--I'm going to go ask him to measure his wingspan now. I have lupus, so connective tissue problems are in his genetic makeup. Thank you for the info!

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  3. Wow, thanks for this post, really interesting!

    It seems that a fair few elite athletes have genetic quirks that give them an edge in their sport. For example, British rowers Matthew Pinsent and Peter Reed have a couple of the largest lung capacities in the country. It all seems to suggest that most athletes now are reaching the upper threshold of human performance and only those with genetic abnormalities are going to make it to the absolute top.

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  4. Good Morning. My father has Marfan's but I don't seem to....I am 3 inches shorter. But looking at Bill Walton, I thought he might. I tried to call him once at ESPN to mention it but he did not have a voicemail box there. He looks like he has some features. I hope he is checked for it and treated it he has it because he is a great guy. Also I have always wondered if maybe Wilt Chamberlain had it and that is why he died so young. RC in Tamp

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  5. My wife has a rare connective tissue disorder-Fibromuscular Displasia. It is in the EDS/Marfan family. She is a physician and familiar with these characteristics-all too familiar. She has been a part of a study with the NIH in guess where..Baltimore! The genetic markers and definition for these connective tissue disorders are evolving. She falls into a group that isn't EDS, as currently defined. She took one look at MP and said..he has a connective tissue disorder. Our kids, 2 boys, are junior swimmers too! I would love to talk to others about this and share information. There are other physical markers that a lot of these connective disorders share: high arched palate, elongated face, certain nose shape, myopia, etc.

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  6. I think there was this former NCAA Shagari Alleyne basketball player who might have Marfan's because even though he was 7,3-7,4" tall he only weighed around 270 lbs and his wingspan is over 8 feet! sounds freakish eh?

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  7. Ok if having disproportionately long limps is the a key outward sign of MS, then I guess this guy could possibly have it.
    http://www.hoopsanalyst.com/jaber005.jpg
    Holy smokes look how his arms are!! He reminds of that elastic guy from Fantastic Four. In most ppl, the elbow is only a little above the top of their head when stretching the arm upwards, but just look how far his elbow is above the top of his head! btw he can dunk w/o jumping lol!

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  8. My name is Karen Wood and i would like to show you my personal experience with Ritalin.

    I am 34 years old. I took this drug for about three days and hated the anxiety that it caused. It made me very nervous and I was way anxious! What an awful feeling to have! As soon as I stopped taking it - the anxiety and nervousness - completely gone.

    I have experienced some of these side effects-
    dry mouth, anxiety

    I hope this information will be useful to others,
    Karen Wood

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  9. nicole from Kentucky go DGD!!12/10/2008 9:20 PM

    i have to do a report on marfan syndrome which is very easy i got alot of info on this which is good too. i am writing an article which very good!!(I think). i found everything i need and i am going to write about micheal phelps in my really artice. I am writing my rough draft. It is do 2morrow so i better get working!!!TTYL..Bye!

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  10. I have the genetic change to indicate that I have marfan syndrome. I was tested following my brothers death (31yrs of age). He wasnt diagnosed prior to his death but he suffered a massive aortic disection which ultimately led to my parents being tested and comparisons made against a tissue sample from my brother. I have minor indications but none that would stand out. Marfans is poorly reported and discussed and there are many misconceptions (height). It may be true that those who are tall are tested and for some it is diagnosed but they are lucky to be chosen to be tested. I am sure there are many out there just like me who are 5'4", hands & feet proportionate, no significant features but carry the same gene change. Since my parents found out, it seems that all those open to the test have been diagnosed with it. The docs say its a 50/50 chance but to me it seems to be very dominant. Look deeper into your family history at heart related deaths before scaring all tall, flexible people! We need more checks and to raise awareness with up to date accurate facts.

    It would be lovely to read your report!

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  11. I'm 32, short 5'5, 160lb, with lens dislocation, didn't know I had Marfan until I was 38 weeks pregnant and had chest pains, since than I had a major hear surgery, eyes surgeries, and found out my baby has Marfan too. There is no specific look, height, or weigh for Marfan, by the way my parents don't have Marfan Syndrome.

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  12. While I can certainly concede that there are expections to the rule, it must be point out that many people with Marfan's share many of the same criteria, such as tall stature, hyperflexible joints, and being very thin. Of course, there is no "cookie cutter mold", but many cases have these "pearls" in common.

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  13. i don't think phelps has marfans cuz he got tested and said he didnt.

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  14. Here is some good Marfan info:
    Marfan syndrome is caused by a mutation in the fibrillin gene. The fibrillin gene produces fibrillin, which is an important component of connective tissue. Connective tissue holds other tissues together all over the body. As a result, people with Marfan Syndrome can have abnormalities involving the heart, blood vessels, bones, joints, lungs, and eyes.
    The most serious problem people with Marfan syndrome fade is weakness of the wall of the aorta, which is the body’s biggest artery. Over time, the aorta weakens and stretches. After a while, the aorta can tear causing blood to leak into the chest. This can cause sudden death.
    With Marfan syndrome, the heart’s mitral valve is floppy and billowing. This can cause shortness of breath or a rapid or irregular heart beat.
    There are many skeletal abnormalities involved with Marfan syndrome. Some patients have a sideways or forward curve in their spine. They can also have back pain caused by connective tissue on the spinal cord to loosen and stretch. Usually all patients have abnormally long fingers, toes, arms, and legs. Sometimes their sternum curves inward or outward.
    People with Marfan syndrome tend to have their lungs collapse suddenly. They can also have breathing issues and emphysema, in which the chest does not expand all the way.
    About 60% of Marfan syndrome patients have lenses that are off center. They also tend to be nearsighted, and cannot clearly focus their eyes. Patients are at a higher risk of having their lenses cloud, their eye pressure increase, or their retina detach.

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  15. Myself:

    Diagnosed with Marfan since I was 15. Lenses not in place. Very short-sighted all my life. Retina detached from one eye (lost of vision in it). Now, without the lense in the other eye I can see much better. And the usual escoliosis.

    I hope that my children won't have this disease.

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  16. When i first read about Marfan Syndrome I was scared that i had it. I have not talked to my doctor yet but I'm pretty sure i don't have it. I'm sorry for all those people who do. May God bless you and your familys. I hope you live long lives.

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  17. I am about to have my son put thru some testing for Marfan's. It is a very scary thought but I know that he and we will be able to get through this. It is nice to be able to read so many comments about Marfan's, that way I know what to look for and what not too. Thank you all so much for being so brave and I hope that I can be that brave if in fact my son does have this.

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  18. Michael is lucky to have a doctor who had the awareness of Marfan to get him screened and followed to be sure he doesnt have any problems found commonly in connective tissue disorders that are fatal. Awareness needs to be raised about connective tissue disorders. They are not as rare as reported...just rarely diagnosed. And btw "screenings" can show false negatives. Genetic and molecular testing though, I hope dont show false negatives.

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  19. He should have an Echocardiagram not just an ekg. An ekg just checks the electrical conductivity of the heart not the structure. An Echo shows the structure. You do not have to have the heart problems to have Marfans. My son has Ehlers Danlos syndrome with the aortic root aneurysm. He also has Osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bones). These are all in the same connective tissue family. Some friends of ours have children with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and Marfans. Their hearts are normal.

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  20. I'm sure Michael Phelphs has had many echocardiograms....

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  21. I too am said to have marfans and when I read this article about phelps it made me feel like for once I could relate to an athlete and somewhat feel what they may be feeling! In a way I guess you could say I was excited when I read this although marfans isn't something to be so excited about.

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  22. If he does have Marfan, he's my hero..

    I'm a Marfan and all my live I've been feeling depressed that I wasn't able to do any physical activities. I'm a man, I got the urge to be physically fit. I want to play sports, work out and even martial art. My dream was to be a soldier, but I wasn't able to realize any of that.

    I've been shunned(not directly) but people have talked ill about people with Marfan, such as the look of tall and thin being gross and look like something out of horror tales. Yes I heard it first hand. They didn't know I'm a Marfan so they talked openly.

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