Sickle Cell Trait & Athletes

    According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the National Athletic Trainer’s Association, complications from sickle cell trait have been documented in various sports and training, including football, distance racing and during “suicide sprints” on the court, laps on a track, or a long training run. Some people with sickle cell trait are more likely than  those without sickle cell trait to experience  heat stroke and muscle breakdown when doing intense exercise, such as competitive sports or military training under unfavorable conditions or temperatures (very high or low).

    In their extreme form and in rare cases, the following conditions could be harmful for people with sickle cell trait:

    • Increased pressure in the atmosphere (e.g., while scuba diving)
    • Low oxygen levels in the air (e.g., when mountain climbing, exercising extremely hard in military boot camp, or training for an athletic competition)
    • Dehydration (e.g., too little water in the body)
    • High altitudes (e.g., flying, mountain climbing, or visiting a city at a high altitude).

    When athletes are pushed to their physical limits, sickle cell trait can be a threat to the athlete’s health. Pushing a person with sickle cell trait to exert beyond this point for “toughness” or discipline can lead to a fatal collapse.

    What precautions should athletes with sickle cell trait take?

    Athletes with sickle cell trait should be allowed to participate in competitive sports. People with sickle cell trait can play and participate in other intense activities (e.g., military training). However, they should take steps to help prevent problems, like drinking plenty of water and resting often.

    People with sickle cell trait who participate in competitive or team sports (i.e. student athletes) should be careful when doing training or conditioning activities. To prevent illness it is important to:

    • Set your own pace and build your intensity slowly
    • Rest often in between repetitive sets and drills
    • Drink plenty of water before, during and after training and conditioning activities
    • Keep the body temperature cool when exercising in hot and humid temperatures by misting the body with water or going to an air conditioned area during breaks or rest periods
    • Immediately seek medical care when feeling ill.

    Additional Resources

    CDC

    National Athletic Trainer’s Association

    National Collegiate Athletic Association

    By Dr. Althea Grant, BDO Sickle Cell Expert

    Althea Grant, PhD, is Chief of the Epidemiology and Surveillance Branch in the Division of Blood Disorders of the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. Dr. Grant has specifically been recognized for her contribution to developing public health programs and resources for sickle cell disease and sickle cell trait.

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