How common are heat injuries among high school football players?
Heat and high school football can make for a dangerous mix, but it’s unavoidable for anyone that participates in athletics of any sort. It’s especially problematic for football programs, and most heat-related injuries among high school athletes present in football players. This makes sense, given the extra gear that comes with football, as well as the constant exertion. But even with these additional risk factors, it’s unacceptable for any high school athlete to suffer severe or fatal injury due to heat stress. Heat injuries are almost always preventable and can be reversible if coaches and trainers take appropriate action beforehand and during an incident.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) track heat injuries that result in lost time. In other words, if a heat injury forces the athlete to miss activities for one or more days, it is tracked by the CDC. And according to the CDC, high school athletes experience more than 9,000 heat-related injuries every year. Among them, football players are 10 times more likely to experience a heat-related injury, compared to other high school athletes. Again, football players are at a much higher risk of heat stress, accounting for about five percent of all heat-related visits to the emergency room between 2005 and 2009.
Prevention methods are getting better, but there is still room for improvement.
What can be done to stop heat-related injuries among high school football players?
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as the saying goes. It’s certainly true when it comes to heat-related injuries, as they can be prevented with basic tools and prevention methods. If heat exhaustion or heat stroke does present, though, immediate action may protect the individual from fatal complications. “Immediate” is the keyword. Here is what coaches and trainers can do to protect their players:
1. Education and information – First, be aware of what heat illness looks like, how it presents and how it can be prevented. Make sure that the players take this seriously, because high school players aren’t likely to willingly admit they aren’t feeling well. Stress the importance of recognizing symptoms and allow anyone experiencing heat-related symptoms to seek respite as soon as possible.
Make sure trainers are also aware of the dangers of excessive heat, and task them with monitoring players. It’s not always clear from a distance who is in danger, so the more eyes, the better.
2. Heat cards – Heat cards are simple reference, temperature monitoring and memory-jogging tools that encourage proper heat illness prevention. A heat card comes with a liquid crystal thermometer that constantly takes ambient air temperature. Check it often to keep abreast of what the weather is doing. Heat cards can also be customized with any reference materials needed, such as proper hydration methods, the symptoms of various heat illnesses, treatment methods and emergency contact information. It’s an inexpensive, easily worn and durable way to keep heat-related illness at the forefront of everyone’s thoughts.
3. Plenty of water – It is exceedingly dangerous to run football drills without water available to the players. This is obvious enough, but coaches often underestimate how much water players actually need to stay properly hydrated. Even if the temperature is below 90 degrees, humidity and heavy football pads will make it feel much hotter. To stay hydrated, players will need to intake at least 36 ounces of fluid every hour, and some will need even more. That’s a lot of water, so make sure there is always enough on hand. Assign someone to the sole task of keeping water supplies up, and don’t let players skip hydration breaks.
4. Provide a shaded rest area – Heat illness strikes when the body can no longer cool itself adequately. As the temperature and humidity climb, it’s harder for the body to transmit heat to the surrounding environment. Hydration will only provide minimal heat sinking, as important as it is, so additional measures are needed to keep players cool and safe.
Even something as simple as a shaded rest area, like a tent, can help normalize a player’s temperature. Consider placing the hydration station inside this area so players are forced into the shade for a bit. Also consider outfitting the spot with fans or misters, as this will cool players off quickly.
5. Act as soon as possible – If a player begins experiencing symptoms of heat illness, even if those symptoms are only apparent to the player, act immediately. If caught right away, heat illness can be stopped before it poses a serious risk. Before long, though, heat exhaustion will develop into heat stroke, and this is a medical emergency.
If the player is conscious and able, get them to a cool, shaded area and hydrate them. Move them inside where there is air conditioning and monitor their vitals to verify that their temperature is dropping. If heat exhaustion or heat stroke is apparent, rapid cooling is needed. If an ice bath is available, get them in one as soon as possible, taking care to keep the player’s head above the water if they are unconscious. If an ice bath is not available, get them to a cool area and cover them with cold, wet towels. In either case, contact emergency services as they may need to be taken to the hospital.
6. Keep an eye on players with additional risk factors – Some people are at a greater risk of heat illness, and these people should be monitored closely. Young people like high schoolers are generally healthy, but players who are overweight and those taking certain medications, including antidepressants and some antihistamines, are at an increased risk of heat illness. Keep an eye on them.
Heat illness is a constant threat to high school football players, but it doesn’t have to be a serious threat. With the right prevention and response methods in place, potentially fatal situations can be avoided.