With millions of student athletes in the United States, it's impossible to prevent sports-related health hazards entirely. More than 30,000 student athletes end up in the hospital with sports-related injuries every year, according to the National Athletic Trainers' Association (NATA), and in 2010, 50 student athletes died because of them.
"It's inherent with high school athletics," Brian Robinson, the chair of NATA's Secondary School Committee, told Yahoo! Shine. "If you're going to have high school athletics, you're going to have injuries, and I think schools need to be aware of that."
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Concussions, spinal cord injuries, complications from asthma and diabetes, exertional heat stroke, and sudden cardiac arrest are among the biggest health hazards young athletes face right now, according to a NATA report.
Concussion rates, especially, are on the rise -- and some experts say that may be a good thing in the long run. The increase in reported incidents has led to an increase in awareness among parents, athletic trainers, and coaches, Kevin Guskiewicz, the co-director of the Matthew Gfeller Sports-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told Yahoo! Shine. And now "athletes are taking it more seriously."
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Thirty-four states have concussion laws on the books, and the Gfeller-Waller Concussion Awareness Act in North Carolina may be one of the most comprehensive. It was inspired by the deaths of two local student athletes: Matt Gfeller was a 15-year-old sophomore when he suffered a catastrophic brain injury during his first varsity football game in 2008; he died two days after the helmet-to-helmet impact. A few months later Jaquan Waller, a junior at another high school, died of "second impact syndrome," a fatal swelling of the brain suffered after an earlier head injury hadn't yet healed.
"The law has an educational component -- as basic as understanding the signs and symptoms of concussions, and the importance of reporting concussions," Guskiewicz says. "It also requires that there is no same-day return to play, as well as a transition sign-off before they can return to play. That's really important, because in the past schools wouldn't require a doctor's sign off."
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Though not widely reported, knee injuries are "a very common injury, one that research shows can lead to the development of knee osteoarthritis, and can become debilitating in your middle-age years," Marjorie Albohm, the president of the National Athletic Trainers Association, told Yahoo! Shine. "Injury to the cartilage, meniscus, or ACL predisposes you to early arthritis in your middle age."
Repetitive stress injuries are also on the rise. The days of lettering in several different varsity sports are gone; instead, students are encouraged to focus on a single sport starting at a very young age -- as early as kindergarten, in some places -- and stick with it throughout high school and college. Sometimes, they're urged to do so by coaches hoping to hone a particular skill. Other times, they're pushed by parents or driven to land a rare college scholarship. But the intense training in one sport over a long period of time can take a toll, even on young and fit bodies.
"Probably the thing that we're seeing the most right now is any type of overuse injury, from stress fractures to low-level muscle injuries," Charlie Thompson, chair of the NATA College/University Athletic Trainers' Committee and the head athletic trainer at Princeton University, told Yahoo! Shine. "Off-season programs start too soon after the end of a long season, and we're not allowing recovery to happen."
"When they get to the high school level and then to the college level, we now see nine, 10, or 11 months of training without a break. It's too much," Thompson continued. "When they get to college, we see the end result: The number of athletes that are coming into college already having had surgery or who need surgery."
As marathon runners were reminded this week, training in hot weather puts athletes of all ages at risk for heat stroke. Most people know the tell-tale signs -- dizziness, headaches, shortness of breath -- but when you're dealing with a serious student athlete, those signs often get ignored.
"If you're doing intense workouts, you're going to get some of those signs and symptoms on a daily basis," Brendon McDermott, assistant professor and clinical coordinator for the Department of Health and Human Performance at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, told Yahoo! Shine. "Athletes will continually push themselves. If it's something serious, their teammates or their coach are going to be the ones to recognize the symptoms."
It's situations like this when the benefits of having a full-time athletic trainer on staff are clear. While coaches are focused on winning games and developing an athlete's skill, and personal trainers are focused on fitness and conditioning, athletic trainers are medical professionals who are certified to prevent, diagnose, and treat injuries and sport-related illnesses. Still, just 42 percent of high schools in the United States have access to an athletic trainer, according to data from NATA.
"Most of the scenarios that would be extreme happen during practice, not games," McDermott says. "I don't know of an exertion heatstroke that's occurred during a game."
"Our whole background is medicine," NATA's Robinson, who is also the head athletic trainer at Glenbrook South High School in Glenview, Illinois, said. "It's not realistic to expect a coach to have that type of background."
Parents have to do their part as well. "Parents should be taking a vested interest in their sons or daughters participation and asking questions like 'What is the emergency action plan?' 'Who has the first aid kit?' and 'Who's going to look after him when he's out there?'" Robinson added.
"Two things I would tell parents," Matt Gfeller's mother, Lisa Gfeller, told USA Today after her son's death. "I would not allow my children to play without a certified athletic trainer. And know about the emergency action plan at your child's school. I was really naive. I would have a lot more questions now."
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