Football season is here: What young athletes should know before hitting the field

The 2012 high school football season is officially underway, with schools across the country starting their first days of practice this week.  Thousands of teenage boys are coming out of their summer haze to go back to school and get their head in the game.

While these high school athletes may be excited to get back on the field, summer isn’t over just yet – at least when it comes to summer heat.  It’s still the middle of August, and temperatures are at an all time high, with a recent report counting July as the hottest month ever on record, according to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.

This means many players will be doing intense two-a-days in 100 degree weather, all while wearing heavy gear and padding.  If they don’t take care of themselves properly, the combination of heat and exercise could have devastating effects on their bodies and their hearts.

Dr. Sean Levchuck, the chairman of pediatric cardiology at St. Francis Hospital in Port Washington, N.Y., stressed the importance for students and parents alike to be prepared.

“I always stress to these kids to pre-hydrate,” Levchuck said.  “You know you’re going to be in camp, you know it’s hot and you’re wearing equipment.  Parents have to have their children prepare ahead of time.  They should be drinking all day.  If practice is in the morning, drink the day before.”

Levchuck said an easy way to tell if you are not getting enough fluids is to monitor how your body is behaving.

“You want to maintain a stable base of hydration throughout practice,” Levchuck said.  “It’s normal for kids to sweat – if they’re not sweating, they’re not hydrated enough.  It’s normal for kids to pee – if they’re not peeing or their pee’s not clear, they’re not hydrated enough.  Also, you can’t wait for yourself to be thirsty.  You’re about 1 to 2  percent dehydrated before your thirst center kicks in.”

“If you want to see how much you lose in water weight,” Levchuck added, “go weigh yourself before you play and after you play.”

It’s also important for student athletes to focus on only one drink in particular – water.

“Drinking a Red Bull or one of these stimulant beverages right before practice –  it’ll contribute more to poor health than anything in the heat,” Levchuck said.  “The best hydration beverage is water.  Energy drinks are completely useless and really are dangerous to these kids.”

Staying heart healthy

Not only are football players at risk of dehydration, but the combination of extreme heat and physical activity could put stress on their hearts as well, putting them at risk for heart failure.  Although sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) is more common in the older population, a study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found nearly 2,000 people under the age of 25 are killed every year from SCA.

The risk for young athletes is even greater; a study published in the Journal of American Medical Association found  that young athletes are more than twice as likely to die from SCA than young non-athletes.  And according to a study from the Heart Rhythm Society, a competitive high school or college athlete dies suddenly every three days in the U.S.

In order to prevent such tragedies from occurring, schools have been offering echocardiogram (ECG) tests for students to help screen against possible problems with their hearts’ electrical activity.  The tests are not mandatory, often they are often covered by insurance companies or offered at a discounted rate by the school.

If your child’s school does not offer an ECG, you might want to consider talking to your child’s pediatrician about getting one before he or she hits the playing field.  Levchuck said ECG tests can be very effective as long as they are scrutinized by cardiologists.

“It’s important to have someone who knows how to do it,” Levchuck said. “You have to have the resources around to interpret it correctly, so that you’re not missing things that aren’t there.  We want an experienced pediatric cardiologist who will sit there and look for the subtle things.  Some people just rely on computers, which can miss things that a person can see.”

Overall, Levchuck advised that for kids to remain healthy during this football season, they need to remember to listen to their body and not to overdo their workout.

“Kids need to trust themselves,” Levchuck said.  “If they feel thirsty, and they don’t feel right, they need to shut it down for a second.  Don’t let an overzealous coach determine their health.  Heat exhaustion is very common in the dog days of August.  If the coach is not responsive to the health needs of the kids, maybe it’s time for a new coach.”