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Student Athletes with Sickle Cell Trait Should Take Precautions When Training

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Sickle Cell Anemia related image Photo: Getty Images

Ryan Clark plays safety for the NFL football team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Although an important player in the starting line-up, his coaches and doctors didn’t allow him to play in this weekend’s playoff game against the Denver Broncos.

Clark has the sickle cell trait (SCT) and strenuous physical activity in the high altitude of Denver, Colorado, can aggravate the symptoms of SCT. In fact, according to CNN, Clark had his spleen and gall bladder removed due to sickle cell complications after a Denver game in 2007.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has explained that a child born with the sickle cell trait has inherited the gene from just one parent and may not experience the symptoms of sickle cell disease (SCD). If a child inherits a sickle cell gene from both parents, he or she will be born with SCD, a disease of the blood.

SCD causes the red blood cells to become C-shaped, just like a sickle. These misshaped blood cells die quickly, causing a shortage in red blood cells. As the sickle cells try to pass through small blood vessels, they cause pain and constrict blood flow.

The CDC reported that 3 million people in America have SCT, many of whom are unaware that they carry the genetic trait. Sickle cell affects 1 in every 12 African Americans and is generally found in people who can trace ancestral roots to Africa, the Mediterranean, South and Central America or the Caribbean.

According to KidsHealth website, a blood test can be used at birth to diagnose SCD. A second blood test, hemoglobin electrophoresis, is performed to confirm. KidsHealth emphasizes to parents that early detection and treatment is important since kids with SCD are at greater risk of infection and other health complications.

CDC reminds parents that in rare or extreme cases of SCT, certain environmental conditions can be harmful and cause SCD-like symptoms. These include: increased air pressure, like while scuba diving, low oxygen levels, high altitude levels, or strenuous exercise that leads to dehydration.

CDC recommendations for student athletes with SCT included remaining hydrated, pacing during strenuous exercise, and monitoring body temperature since many people with SCT are more prone to heat stroke. Parents and coaches should seek emergency medical care if the athlete with SCT becomes ill during exercise.


CNN. Sickle Cell Trait Keeps Steelers Safety out of Playoff Game. Web. 9, January 2011.

Centers for Disease Control. Sickle Cell Disease, Traits. Web. 9, January 2011.

Kidshealth. Sickle Cell Disease. Web. 9, January 2011.

Reviewed January 10, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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