Jan 29, 2015A Look at Sickle Cell Disease
In 2001, Florida State University football player Devaughn Darling collapsed and died shortly after an off-season workout during which he complained of dizziness and chest pains. In an eerily similar situation in 2005, University of Missouri football player Aaron O’Neal died suddenly after a preseason practice. There was no definitive cause of death in Darling’s case, and O’Neal’s death was caused by viral meningitis. But during autopsies, both players were found to have had the sickle cell trait, which many medical officials say was a contributing factor in the players’ deaths.
Neither Florida State nor Missouri were aware of the players’ condition, and Darling and O’Neal most likely didn’t know they carried the sickle cell trait either, as the disease does not have any obvious symptoms. The NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports does not require member schools to screen for the trait and in 2005 it called sickle cell disease a “benign condition that does not affect the longevity of the individual.” However, the NCAA may be reconsidering its stance as it is now looking into requiring testing in the future.
The NATA will host a press conference titled “Sickle Cell Trait and the Athlete” at its 58th annual Meeting & Clinical Symposia next week in California, at which NATA officials will outline how to work with athletes who have the sickle cell trait.
Here is some background on sickle cell anemia and how it affects athletes in particular.
A person’s red blood cells, which are normally circular in shape, take on a sickle shape in people with sickle cell anemia, elongating to look more like a crescent moon. The oddly shaped cells do not last as long as normal cells, which can lead to anemia. Because of their odd shape, they can also become stuck in blood vessels, causing intense bouts of pain. In addition, the shape impedes cells’ ability to carry oxygen to tissue that needs it, and sudden death can result. Because athletes use more oxygen when exercising, they are more susceptible to unexpected exercise-related death than sedentary individuals with the trait.
The sickle cell trait is inherited from parents, just as eye and hair color are. But the vast majority of those affected are African-American–one in 12 carry the trait, and as a result, concerns have been raised over racial discrimination in treatment. A St. Petersburg Times article takes a closer look at the issue:
The debate raises questions of racial politics. Although people of different races have sickle cell, some fear black athletes might face discrimination. Police might use sickle cell trait to cover brutality. Medical questions can become clouded.
“That’s why you get the controversy,” Dr. Michael Bell, Chief Medical Examiner for Palm Beach County, told the Times. “It’s easy to say this group can’t do this, or this group must take these precautions. You can’t do that with a group that is largely asymptomatic, where there’s a small number that will develop a complication that’s life-threatening.”
Unfortunately, there is no easy treatment for sickle cell disease, but there have been some recent advancements. University of Delaware researchers founded a biotechnology company earlier this year to develop ways to repair genes that cause rare, hereditary diseases such as sickle cell anemia. And the Children’s Hospital of Michigan is in the process of conducting a pediatric sickle cell study, during which it has found hydroxyurea, a mild chemotherapy drug initially used to treat certain cancers, can help children over the age of five and adults with sickle cell anemia.
“Studies have shown that hydroxyurea can decrease the number of pain events, acute chest syndrome (pneumonia), blood transfusions, and admissions to the hospital. Patients take it once a day either as a capsule or liquid. It must be prescribed by a doctor and is available at most drug stores.”
Abigail Funk is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning
Sickle Cell Disease Association of America