ST. GEORGE — Intermountain Healthcare athletic trainers are working with local high school teams to help prevent potentially deadly heat illnesses on the field.
The athletic trainers are responsible for the prevention, immediate care and rehabilitation of sports injuries, including heat illnesses.
“In Southern Utah, heat illness is part of the environment,” Rhett Farrer, regional sports medicine manager for Intermountain Healthcare, said.
Intermountain has placed one trainer in each school to work in varsity athletics, who attend practices, games and other events as part of the team.
“We want to win just like the coaches, but our avenue to getting there is probably different in that we’re protecting the athletes,” Farrer said. “But if we protect the athletes, they’re healthier for gameplay.”
Heat illness is not uncommon in Southern Utah, and athletes performing in the sun are especially susceptible.
There are several kinds of heat illnesses, ranging from heat rash and sunburn to heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heatstroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Michelle Hudson, athletics trainer at Pine View High School, said she most commonly sees heat cramps on the field, which are heat-caused muscle pains or spasms that can be treated with rest, hydration and cooling off.
Heat exhaustion is less common, with the teams having only a few cases per year, Hudson said. Typically, someone experiencing heat exhaustion has pale, clammy skin, a fast, weak pulse, muscle cramps, nausea or vomiting, dizziness, headache, weakness and even fainting.
Heatstroke is the most serious heat-related illness and can be deadly. Symptoms of heatstroke include a high body temperature of 103 degrees or higher, a fast strong pulse, headache, dizziness, nausea, confusion and losing consciousness, according to the CDC.
“Heat illness can be life-threatening. If it is heatstroke, then we do require that they go to the emergency room to make sure everything is taken care of because deaths can and do happen because of heatstroke,” Hudson said.
In Utah, schools are mandated to have a cold water immersion tub onsite in case an athlete gets heatstroke. The cooling tub is used by immersing the overheated person in water and ice, in an attempt to reduce their body temperature to at least 102 degrees prior to being transported by emergency medical services.
Part of the way the trainers protect student-athletes from heat illness is through prevention. The most important way to prevent heat illness is staying hydrated, Hudson said.
“The best way to prevent heat illness is to hydrate well, make sure that you get electrolytes, make sure that you’re eating properly, make sure that you’re sleeping well, and then if you do start experiencing anything, make sure that you stop the exercise or whatever you’re doing so that you can take care of yourself,” she said.
The schools also try to schedule games and practice during cooler parts of the day, like in the early morning or late evening.
The Panthers football team has a rule that anyone who starts to feel dehydrated or like they need a drink break can step off the field at any time, without permission, to rest and drink water, Todd Shaw, assistant varsity coach of the Panthers varsity football team, said.
Those who are not used to the Southern Utah temperatures are typically more prone to heat illness, Farrer said. Because of this, all students are required to undergo a 14-day heat acclimatization period as mandated by the Utah High School Activities Association.
“If they’re transplants, or they’re new to our environment, then this can be just shocking,” Farrer said. “So the acclimatization time-period is mandatory.”
The partnership between Intermountain and the high schools began in the ‘90s when Farrer first started working as an athletic trainer voluntarily at Dixie and Pine View High Schools.
After about 15 years, he said he realized that he couldn’t keep up with the athletic departments of both schools, much less throughout Southern Utah.
“I went to Intermountain and said, ‘We’ve got to change something,’” Farrer said.
Farrer was able to coordinate contracts with the schools, and now Intermountain has nearly 20 athletic trainers working with varsity teams in schools across Southern Utah, including one at each of the high schools in Washington and Iron Counties, and eight at Dixie State University.
“For us, it’s an extra added bonus. It takes all of the work for us. If the trainer says they don’t go, they don’t go … And we can focus on coaching football and not have to worry about injuries,” Shaw said.
Intermountain also offers sports physicals at the start of each school year, which are required on a yearly basis for any student participating in athletics.
Volunteer athletic trainers, physical therapists and other physicians work together to host one physicals night per year at each high school, charging the students $20, all of which goes to the school.
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