Experts stress extreme heat problematic for student athletes

Though New Jersey has taken steps to avoid incidents, coaches must remain vigilant and look for symptoms.

It’s widely considered the worst eight days in student athletic history. A week in 2011 when triple digit temperatures were blamed for killing five high school football players.

“Over a 10-year period, 35 young people lost their lives in the United States of America because of the consequences of heat exposure,” said state Sen. Patrick Diegnan.

Since then, New Jersey has become a leader, adopting guidelines for safe practices and heat-acclimatization that help the body adapt to exercising in extreme conditions. But Diegnan worries that the issue is still flying under the radar.

“JFK Hospital reached out to me last year and said they were having, because last August was so stinking hot, that they were having an exceptional amount of athletes that were coming in with the consequences of exposure to the temperatures,” Diegnan said.

“Our athletes are especially vulnerable, especially because they think they’re invincible,” added Chief of Emergency Services at JFK Medical Center Dr. Ken Herman, “and a lot of times their coaches want them to be invincible.”

Exertional heatstroke is the leading cause of preventable death in high school athletics. It’s marked by dehydration, weakness, nausea or vomiting, but can be easily treated. State leaders want parents and athletes to be aware of the signs to minimize risk.

“The body’s own thermal mechanism are not able to compensate the way we normally expect them to do,” explained Herman, “so even one who is very healthy is easily overcome by heat when the conditions approach a certain level.”

There is a little tool called the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature. It’s one of the many factors athletic directors use to decide if it’s safe for athletes to practice. Experts recommend rolling them out for use throughout the state.

“You’re talking a total expenditure of about $200,000 statewide for each district to have one of these devices,” said Diegnan, “I think we absolutely should mandate it and put funding in place.”

“This has been used in the military for years for our soldiers. And at college and professional levels are utilizing these devices at this time,” added Athletic Trainer for Red Bank Regional High School Christina Emrich.

Still, those on the field are the best line of defense. That’s the response that was given when NJTV News asked the physicians if they would recommend doing away with things like two-a-day practices.

“It’s not the two-a-days themselves that is the problem,” said Herman. “The problem is the recognition of the signs and symptoms of when an athlete needs to stop, needs to cool down and hydrate.”

“Will that come in the future? It may. We’re closely looking at what’s going to happen over the next couple of years,” added Director of Sports Medicine at Somerset Medical Center and member of the Medical Advisory Board at the NJSIAA Dr. John Kripsak. “The ivy league has set the standard for that and we want to see how that plays out. And if we think that’s in the safest interest for the student athletes of New Jersey, then that’s what we’re going to go for.”

In the meantime, preseason practices are underway.