SE: All Wildcat Athletes Tested for Sickle Cell

All K-State student-athletes are tested for the sickle cell trait, which can cause severe pain and possible death.

Oct. 10, 2011

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By Mark Janssen

Heads, shoulders and legs are protected with helmets and pads, and, precautions are taken in regards to heat and hydration.

But for the last two years, the health of all NCAA Division I athletes has been taken one step further through the mandatory screening for the sickle cell trait that has been related to nine college football deaths in the past decade.

“It’s an in-house blood draw and we generally know the results within 24 hours,” said K-State head athletic trainer Matt Thomason. “An incoming student cannot practice or compete in any sport until the results are in.

“We’ve been testing the last five years, at least in special populations, but starting last fall every student-athlete has been tested,” said K-State’s seventh-year head trainer. “In some years we have had positive tests, and in other years we have not. But in football alone with a roster of over 100, according to statistics, the norm would be to have individuals with the sickle cell trait.”

The disease, a inherited blood disorder, is present in about eight percent of all African-Americans, but well under one percent of Caucasians.

In the sickle cell disease, red blood cells can become rigid and crescent (or sickle) in shape, which can prevent them from moving through blood vessels. This can cause blockages and prevent healthy blood cells from taking oxygen to tissues throughout the body causing severe pain, and possible death.

Thomason says that the pain “… is somewhat like a cramping sensation, but it’s not like a muscle cramp where the muscle is rock solid and you have screaming pain. It’s more of an aching sensation, but not one of those where the athlete is on the ground grabbing his leg. But the cramping can turn into organ shut down, which can happen relatively quickly.”

The immediate medicine is hydration with Thomason saying relief can come within 10 minutes, which is quicker than bouncing back from a muscle cramp. In more severe cases, oxygen can bring relief.

But if unattended to, he adds, “It can be life threatening.”

The personality of football does not necessarily ignite the sickle cell trait. It can come from a high-level contact competition, but Thomason says it can also be triggered by a simple jog around the block.

“The key is for an individual not to get out of shape. That’s why our summer workouts are so vital,” said Thomason. “It really helps if you continue to work and stay conditioned. A sport like football, or working out in the heat, does not magnify the problem. It can happen at any time in or out of sports. It’s certainly not a reason to not play sports, but the trait is just something that needs to be known.”

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