Health Concerns for Young Athletes More Than Just Concussions

Concussions are receiving attention nationwide, but death from a blow to the head is exceedingly rare. In contrast, a young athlete dies from a cardiac incident once every three days in the United States, researchers say. In hot months like August, heat stroke often causes the death of a young athlete every other day on average.

"Concussion victims almost always get a second chance," said Laura Friend, an attendee at the Washington summit whose 12-year-old daughter, Sarah, died of sudden cardiac arrest while swimming at a Texas community pool in 2004. "When your heart fails from something that could have been treated — which happens all the time — you don't have another chance. As someone told me, sudden cardiac arrest is not rare; surviving it is."

Heat stroke, also known as exertional heat illness, has been a focus of sports safety advocates because of simple, common-sense preventive measures, like introducing gradual levels of exercise at the beginning of a sports season in hot temperatures.

"When my son died, people treated it as a freak thing," said Rhonda Fincher, whose 13-year-old son, Kendrick, died in 1995 from heat stroke sustained during a season-opening football practice in northwestern Arkansas. "The ignorance was unacceptable because, unfortunately, it is not infrequent. And we should all know that.

"No healthy child should be sent off to a routine practice and die from it."

Leaders of youth sports acknowledge that concussions have long been overlooked and that the injury deserves a period of heightened awareness, especially because of the potential for long-term consequences. But as the focus of the February conference organized by the National Athletic Trainers' Association suggests, there is a mounting worry that more hazardous health concerns are being disregarded because of the intense emphasis on brain injuries.

A sudden heart-related death is "so incredibly tragic and stunning that people aren't comfortable putting it into the everyday conversation," said Dr. Jonathan Drezner, the president of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine.

"I do wish, to some extent, it was something people talked more about," Drezner added, "because we are getting to a place where we could prevent many of these deaths."

Image: Girl with soccer ball, via Shutterstock

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