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patient education

Consensus statement: sickle cell trait and the athlete

key information

source: National Atheletic Trainers' Association

year: N/A


Sickle cell trait is the inheritance of one gene for sickle hemoglobin and one for normal hemoglobin. During intense or extensive exertion, the sickle hemoglobin can change the shape of red cells from round to quarter-moon, or “sickle.” This change, exertional sickling, can pose a grave risk for some athletes. In the past seven years, exertional sickling has killed nine athletes, ages 12 through 19.

Research shows how and why sickle red cells can accumulate in the bloodstream during intense exercise. Sickle cells can “logjam” blood vessels and lead to collapse from ischemic rhabdomyolysis, the rapid breakdown of muscles starved of blood. Major metabolic problems from explosive rhabdomyolysis can threaten life. Sickling can begin in 2-3 minutes of any all-out exertion – and can reach grave levels soon thereafter if the athlete continues to struggle. Heat, dehydration, altitude, and asthma can increase the risk for and worsen sickling, even when exercise is not all-out. Despite telltale features, collapse from exertional sickling in athletes is under-recognized and often misdiagnosed. Sickling collapse is a medical emergency.

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