Three high school football players died from heatstroke last year, survey reveals

07/29/05

CHAPEL HILL Scorching summer temperatures across much of the nation this month, including record-breaking highs, have prompted a University of North Carolina injury expert to issue a special warning about football players as practice for the 2005 season gets underway.

"Football practice is beginning around the country, and the weather is just brutal in many states," said Dr. Frederick Mueller, professor and chair of exercise and sport science in UNC's College of Arts and Sciences. "Coaches, players, parents and others need to take extra precautions to prevent heatstroke and heatstroke deaths."

In 2002 and 2003, no heatstroke deaths occurred among U.S. football players, but last year, there were three, Mueller said.

"Players die from hidden medical conditions and from freakish accidents just about every year, but no athlete should ever die from getting too hot during practice or games," he said. "Such tragedies are 100 percent preventable."

Twenty-four healthy players have died needlessly from heatstroke since 1995, an average of two and half a year, Mueller said.

"Players should get all the water they want in practice and have frequent cooling-off breaks," he said. "Shorter practices and non-contact drills during which players don't wear helmets can help prevent heatstroke and also reduce accidents."

Coaches and trainers need to keep a close watch on temperatures and humidity, especially in August and September. Practices should be held early or late in the day, and if it's too hot, coaches need to consider canceling them for a day or so until temperatures and humidity drop.

"Players should be encouraged to tell coaches or trainers if they don't feel good," Mueller said. "They should never be made to feel weak if they have trouble. Although many coaches used to do that and thought it was the right thing, now we understand that can be disastrous."

Mueller, chairman of the American Football Coaches' Committee of Football Injuries, directs the UNC-based National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injuries. Each year, the center produces reports on deaths and severe injuries from amateur and professional sports. The goal is to make football and other sports safer, he said.

Reports are based partly on newspaper stories from around the United States collected and submitted by about 150 volunteers who monitor sports accidents, along with information from the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Four high school and one youth league players died from injuries suffered on the playing field during 2004, including four from head injuries, Mueller said. Another 10 deaths resulted from "indirect" causes such as heatstroke, heart conditions, sickle cell disease and lightning. The cause of three could not be undetermined.

"Besides heatstroke, another growing concern was the rise last year in the number of catastrophic injuries involving some kind of permanent paralysis," he said. "Last year, there were 12, mostly among high school players, and that was the first year since 1990 that there were more than 10."

Coaches need to remind players often that the head has no place in football, he said. No one should make first contact with his -- or her -- head when blocking and tackling. That's against the rules, but more importantly, it's dangerous.

Between 1960 and 2003, 101 players died from heatstroke, Mueller said. Eight players died from heatstroke in 1970 alone, the highest one-year total. Before 1955, no heatstroke deaths were recorded among football players. Few schools and homes could afford air-conditioning, and it was likely players were better acclimated to hot weather.

That 36 young men died in 1968 as a direct result of football injuries shows how much safer the game has become through rule, equipment, medical and coaching changes that came about in part because of data Mueller and others collected. No such deaths occurred in 1990. A Yale University faculty member began the yearly football death and injury survey in 1931. It moved to Purdue University in 1942 and has been at UNC since 1965. The American Football Coaches Association, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the National Federation of State High School Associations sponsor the national study.

About 1.5 million junior high school and high school students play football in the United States each year. Colleges and universities field about 75,000 players.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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