A player hunched over, gasping for air between wind sprints could be something more serious than fatigue.
The exhaustion could be caused by sickle cell trait, which doesn’t indicate symptoms or health problems unless the body is under extreme physical stress, such as what can occur during conditioning.
At the youth level, coaches, parents and players need to be aware of the trait and its implications. A blood test to determine if a player has sickle cell trait, along with knowing the signs and symptoms of the trait allows for safer practices for players who have it.
Most states test infants at birth, though not all require it. And by the time young athletes are ready for competitive sports, many parents don’t remember the results of that test.
Sickle cell trait causes the normally round red blood cells to crescent and become sticky under physical stress. This makes it harder for blood flow between organs, making it difficult for oxygen to pass and causes the heart and lungs to struggle for air.
Symptoms of sickle cell include the following: muscle cramping, pain, swelling, weakness, difficulty breathing and fatigue. Youth coaches should be cautious when symptoms like these occur and advise the child’s parents.
Sickle cell trait differs from sickle cell disease. Both are passed on genetically, but in sickle cell trait, the carrier has one sickle cell hemoglobin trait and one normal hemoglobin trait. People with the condition usually lead normal, healthy lives.
A person with sickle cell disease carries sickle traits from both parents and has some crescent-shaped blood cells at all times. This makes it harder for blood to flow between organs, like a person with sickle cell trait suffers under extreme physical duress. People with sickle cell disease need constant medical attention.
The NCAA passed a measure in April 2011to screen all athletes for sickle cell trait. Although high school associations and youth leagues don’t require tests, the National Athletic Trainers' Association (NATA) recommends checking for sickle cell trait during a pre-participation physical examination.
The genetic trait is most common in blacks, appearing in 8 percent of individuals. About 1 percent of whites have sickle cell traits.
From 2000-11, nine college football players with sickle cell trait have died following intense physical workouts. A combined 17 high school and collegiate athletes have died from complications since 2001.
The nine college football deaths related to sickle cell trait make up approximately 42.9 percent of the 21 non-traumatic deaths in college football from 2000-11, a higher percentage than both heat stroke (28.6 percent) and cardiac issues (19 percent), according to a report from the Orlando Sentinel.
Many NFL and college players who have the trait have succeeded athletically, including NFL wide receivers Terrell Owens and Santonio Holmes.