August 12, 2010

Health risks for student athletes rise along with the temperature

Health risks for student athletes rise along with the temperature

As students return to school this week, Middle Tennessee is under a dangerously high heat index.

The dangerously high recent temperatures call for precautions for all children, and experts at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt have special advice for parents and coaches involved in youth sports.

“We have been seeing an average of one child every day (due to heat-related incidents) for the last few days,” said Thomas Abramo, M.D., director of Pediatric Emergency Medicine.

“These children have generally been at sports practice or at least an all-day outdoor camp and have had heat stress and heat exhaustion,” Abramo said.

Andrew Gregory, M.D., assistant professor of Orthopaedics and Pediatrics, said the start of the season is the most dangerous time for heat stroke, and football is the sport where the risk is the highest. When the body's core temperature reaches a critical level, the body can literally begin to cook.

“If the internal temperature stays high organs begin to be damaged, and if untreated, heatstroke leads to multiple organ failure and death,” Gregory said.

Gregory, who serves on the Youth, Sports, Health committee for the American College of Sports Medicine as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Council on Sports Medicine, speaks at national events and advises coaches to adopt a basic safety plan that includes canceling outdoor practices when the heat index reaches 104 degrees.

Gregory said that even drinking plenty of fluids may not fully protect athletes. Coaches need to realize that it takes most people one-and-a-half to two weeks to acclimate to the heat if they've been spending most of their summer inside in the air conditioning. Caution should be taken to reduce the length and intensity of exercise during a heat wave.

If a coach or other observer notices a change in the behavior in an athlete, and heat is suspected to be the cause, it is important to be prepared with an ice bath and a way to determine a core body temperature.

“Taking an athlete's temperature in their ear or mouth or on their forehead is not enough. They may be cool on the outside, but hot in the core of their bodies.

“Unfortunately, the only way to determine body core temperature is a rectal thermometer. If it indicates a core temperature above 102, that athlete needs to be cooled immediately with an ice bath, even before EMS arrives. Organ damage begins to occur at a core temperature of 104,” Gregory said.