Heatstroke killed four football players during 1998, expert urges precautions

August 02, 1999

CHAPEL HILL - Four high school football players died from heatstroke during the 1998 season, according to a new University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study.

Such deaths are almost always preventable, and coaches for football and all other vigorous sports should take extra precautions in hot weather to prevent tragedies, the study director says.

"In the past four years, we have seen 11 football-related heatstroke deaths," said Dr. Frederick Mueller, professor and chair of physical education, exercise and sport science at UNC-CH. "Shorter practices in hot weather and non-contact drills during which players don't wear helmets can help prevent heatstroke and reduce accidents. Players should be allowed as much water as they want, and coaches should schedule regular cooling-off breaks."

Practices should never be scheduled during the hottest part of the day, Mueller said.

Eight players died from heatstroke in 1970, the highest one-year total, he said. No heatstroke deaths occurred in 1993 and 1994 during practices or games. Before 1955, no heatstroke deaths were recorded among players. Few schools and homes had air conditioning, and it's likely players were better able to tolerate high temperatures and humidity.

During 1998, seven football players died across the United States as a direct result of injuries suffered on the field, the study showed. Seven other players - including the heatstroke victims -- also died, but those fatalities were not directly tied to the game and could have resulted from other vigorous activities.

"All of the direct fatalities resulted from damage to the brain," Mueller said "Three of the indirect deaths were heart-related."

Also last year, four players suffered cervical cord injuries with permanent disability, and four others were permanently disabled by brain injuries, he said. Most of the deaths and severe injuries resulted from players tackling others with their heads down.

"With many schools starting earlier this year and the very hot weather we have been having across the country, heatstroke could be an even bigger problem than in the past," Mueller said. "Players should start off easy for at least seven to 10 days to get them acclimated to the heat."

Mueller, chairman of the American Football Coaches' Committee of Football Injuries, directs the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injuries, based at the university. Every year, the center issues reports on deaths and severe injuries from amateur and professional sports.

Reports are based partly on newspaper stories from around the United States, along with information from the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the National Federation of State High School Associations and about 150 volunteers who monitor sports accidents.

In 1968, 36 young men died after injuries in practices or in games. Mueller said. The drop in deaths directly attributable to football resulted from rule changes adopted in 1976 that prohibited using the head as the first point of contact during blocking and tackling.

Mueller and other experts strongly recommend pre-practice physical examinations for boys -- and the small number of girls -- who want to play football. Such exams sometimes reveal hidden conditions that make heavy exertion hazardous. Parents should make sure their children are insured against catastrophic injury and that medical assistance is available during practice and games.

Players should salt their food, but should not use salt tablets, which may do more harm than good, the UNC-CH professor said. They also should weigh in before and after practice. If they lose more than 3 percent of their weight from one day to another, they should not be allowed to practice because it means they are getting dehydrated. Overweight athletes and those who try hardest face the highest risk of heatstroke.

A Yale University faculty member began the yearly football death and injury survey in 1931. It was moved to Purdue University in 1942 and has been at UNC-CH since 1965. The American Football Coaches Association, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the National Federation of State High School Associations sponsor the study to make the game safer.
-end-
Note: Mueller can be reached at 919-962-5171 (w) or 929-5097 (h).
Contact: David Williamson, 919-962-8596 (w) or 732-2991 (h).

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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