UNCG Campus Weekly

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Adams’ study aims to help states improve high school athlete safety

photo of AdamsHow are states measuring up when it comes to the health and safety of their high school athletes? That’s a question Dr. William Adams answers in a study set to be published in the Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine in September.

The good news is that North Carolina ranks No. 1 in having the most comprehensive state-level policies for preventing and managing the leading causes of sudden death and catastrophic injury in sport, but Adams, who co-led the study at the University of Connecticut’s Korey Stringer Institute (named for the late NFL player who died from complications of heat stroke during a Vikings practice in 2001) found that other states should be doing more.

“States need to fill the gap and focus their energy on training and minimizing risk,” said Adams, a newly minted assistant professor in UNCG’s Department of Kinesiology and associate director of Athletic Training Education.

The national study on high school sports safety lays out what states are, or are not doing to protect athletes from concussions, heat stroke and sudden cardiac arrest. Adams found that policies vary from state to state and some states are not doing enough to protect athletes from concussions, as well as other life-threatening injuries.

From 1982 to 2015, there were 735 fatalities and 626 catastrophic injuries related to high school sports, according to The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s National Center for Catastrophic Sport Research. Sudden cardiac arrest, traumatic head injury, exertional heat stroke and exertional sickling are the culprits of 90 percent of deaths in sport, Adams said.

State-level policies would ensure athletes at all schools – public and private – would be protected.

Adams and colleagues developed a grading rubric that assessed current best practices for not only preventing, but also managing those leading causes of death.

States ranking in the top five were Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Jersey and South Dakota – with North Carolina at No. 1. States scored higher for having return-to-play strategies and athletic trainers on site to carry out emergency action plans and medical care. They also had policies in place that were focused on all of the leading causes of death in sport.

In 2003, NCAA mandated heat acclimatization – the phasing in of an activity over the course of two weeks – dictating when football teams practice and how long equipment can be worn. Prior to the policy, Adams said, teams were seeing one to two exertional heat stroke deaths per year. In the last 14 years, there have only been two deaths during the first two weeks of practice.

“If you extrapolate that data from then to now, that’s in theory saved roughly 30 athletes or so from dying of heat stroke just having one simple policy of no cost,” Adams said.

He estimated that having site- and sport-specific emergency plans at every high school (heat acclimatization policy, environmental monitoring policy, adequate AEDs on site, trained personnel, proper cooling modalities, etc.) would cost less than $5,000 per school.

Adams said he hopes the study will serve as a catalyst for states to reach out to one another and figure out ways they can all improve policies to protect young athletes. North Carolina’s ranking is a response to prior catastrophic injuries that led to fatalities, and the state was proactive following those events.

“Our culture is reactive – we wait for something bad to happen before we change things,” Adams said. “If there is a scientific way to show these policies are successful, just do it, especially if it’s minimal cost.”

By Elizabeth L. Harrison