Athletes with sickle cell must be cautious

Two years ago, Ryan Clark of the Pittsburgh Steelers nearly died after playing in Denver. He required emergency surgery to remove his spleen and gall bladder. Ryan, along with one in 12 African-Americans, has sickle cell trait and must be cautious about competing at high altitudes.

Sickle cell disease affects the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen. It is an evolutionary adaptation that provides resistance to malaria and is found in people who come from areas where malaria is endemic like Africa, the Middle East, South America as well as the Mediterranean, Caribbean and other areas. The decreased oxygen-carrying ability of hemoglobin results in damage to a variety of organs including the brain, lungs and spleen.

Sickle cell disease differs from sickle cell trait. The trait is found in those who have both a normal and a sickle component to hemoglobin. During intense exertion, dehydration or conditions that decrease oxygen, red blood cells change their shape and clog blood vessels throughout the body.

The condition can also result in a potentially lethal breakdown of muscle known as acute exertional rhabdomyolysis.

While it is generally safe for athletes with sickle cell trait to compete, certain precautions must be followed:

• Athletes from at-risk groups must be tested before participation.
• When competing at high altitudes, sufficient time must be spent adapting to the new environment.
• Adequate hydration is crucial.
• Symptoms of fatigue, shortness of breath and abdominal or leg pain are often a hallmark of impending crisis.
• Workouts in extreme heat must be modified.

There is some controversy that finding the gene may potentially adversely impact an athlete’s financial value in professional sports. While this is highly unlikely, it must be weighed against the potential loss of life.

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