Screening Alone Not Enough to Prevent Sudden Death in College Athletes

TUESDAY Dec. 20, 2011 -- Precautionary measures need to be used in conjunction with screening to protect all college athletes from sudden death related to overexertion and exhaustion, researchers say.

After a college football player died from complications due to sickle cell trait during a workout, the NCAA implemented mandatory screening of all Division I student athletes.

University of Michigan researchers evaluated the effect of the policy and concluded that screening tests alone would help identify more than 2,000 athletes with sickle cell trait, but they added that screening alone is not enough.

Having sickle cell trait, which occurs primarily in African Americans, means carrying one gene for sickle cell disease, rather than having the condition. However, carrying the trait alone has previously been found to increase the risk of sudden death. Dehydration and exercising in intense heat can increase the risk for carriers.

"Although the policy is well-intentioned, screening is just the first step," lead author Dr. Beth Tarini, an assistant professor in the pediatrics and communicable diseases department, said in a university news release. "In addition to educating athletes and staff, precautionary measures need to be strictly enforced," she added.

"The culture in sports to push ourselves dangerously beyond our limits is powerful," Tarini said. "Implementing policies to identify those at risk provides a false sense of security if we aren't diligent about monitoring and protecting the health and safety of our student athletes."

Without a strictly enforced universal intervention policy, about seven NCAA Division I athletes would die suddenly as a complication of sickle cell trait over a 10-year period, the researchers concluded.

"In the end, enforcing safe training measures to protect all NCAA student-athletes -- not just those in Division I -- from sudden death related to [sickle cell trait] will benefit all athletes," Tarini said. "That's a win-win situation from a policy perspective."

The study was released online in advance of publication in an upcoming print edition of the journal Health Services Research.

More information

The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has more about sickle cell trait.

Posted: December 2011


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