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Guidelines issued for high school sports safety

National Athletic Trainers’ Association continues to emphasize prevention for high schools

LAS VEGAS — He walks with a slight limp from the high school football neck injury that temporarily paralyzed him in 2008. But LaQuan Phillips walked purposefully to the podium Tuesday at the annual meeting of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA).

“Good morning, my name is LaQuan Phillips, and I’m alive today because of the expert care of athletic trainer Jeremy Haas,” Phillips, 22, said at a news conference.

In sports medicine, concussions are in the spotlight, particularly in football. The NATA held the news conference to announce guidelines aimed at preventing a range of serious medical conditions that can lead to sudden death and major complications in high school athletes.

Also Tuesday, the NATA released preliminary data showing about two-thirds of U.S. high schools have access to athletic trainers, whether full-time or part-time. That’s an improvement from its estimates in previous years that only about 40-45% had such access.

Doug Casa, who chaired the task force that wrote the guidelines, said there are about 7 million high school athletes. The NATA recommendations are aimed at administrators, coaches, athletic trainers, athletes and others involved in sports safety.

“The high school athlete is by far the largest constituent of athletes we have in our country. It’s the largest constituent of athletes that we have die each year,” said Casa, director of athletic training at the University of Connecticut and head of the Korey Stringer Institute, dedicated to the former Minnesota Vikings NFL lineman who died of heat stroke in 2001.

Casa said the leading causes of the deaths are sudden cardiac arrest, head injuries, heat stroke and complications from the blood condition called sickle cell trait.

The Youth Sports Safety Alliance said it documented 40 deaths in high school sports in 2012. Casa said research at the Korey Stringer Institute has found about 100-140 deaths each year if you count high school and youth sports.

“Most deaths are preventable with proper recognition and emergency protocols,” said Jim Thornton, president of the NATA.

He said his group wrote guidelines because, “There is no national organization at the secondary school level authorized to make policies that provide guidelines to be implemented state by state.”

Phillips was playing linebacker in a football game for Green Valley High School in Las Vegas in 2008 when his head struck the knee of a teammate. When Haas, former athletic trainer at the school, rushed on the field, Phillips was face down and motionless. He was paralyzed from the neck down.

“The first thing he said to me was, “I can’t feel anything. I can’t move. I’m scared.’ So I just tried to calm him down,” said Haas.

Haas kept Phillips’ neck immobilized. When an ambulance arrived, Haas said he told an EMT not to remove Phillips’ helmet. “I told him the proper protocol of removing the facemask with a screwdriver instead of removing the helmet on the field,” said Haas.

Phillips had a spinal contusion in his neck. He underwent surgery to place a metal plate in his spine. He said doctors initially told him to not to expect “signs of walking” for about six months. He took his first steps in about four months.

Phillips said he still is doing daily exercises to improve his gait and fine motor skills. He is working for a financial services company while in the process of transferring from Nevada State to UNLV. He is studying business and management.

His father, “Cool” Vince Phillips was a pro boxer. His son wears a boxing gloves medallion around his neck. “It’s something I get to look down at and feel proud about fighting through every day and making it as far as I have,” he said,

Among the NATA guidelines for brain and neck injuries is for schools to have a plan in place for dealing with situations such as Phillips’ spinal contusion, including the importance of keeping the head and neck immobilized before ambulance transport.

The guidelines also urge schools to gradually acclimate athletes to heat before summer activities, have defibrillators (AEDs) on site for cardiac emergencies and take special precautions to monitor and rest athletes who suffer from the exercise-induced complications of sickle cell trait.

Jonathan Drezner, physician for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks and a medical professor at the University of Washington, said cardiac arrest in young athletes involves an “electrical short circuit in the heart.” Drezner said a defibrillator costs about $1,000 to $1,500; larger schools that need more than one can accomplish that in the $2,000-$5,000 range.

“It’s not an extraordinary amount of money. A few bakes sales might do it,” he said.

Drezner also said, “It is ideal if an athletic trainer is at every high school in the United States.”

That is NATA’s goal.

Casa said staffers at the Korey Stringer Institute set out to call all 20,000 public high schools in the nation to survey athletic trainer coverage. Data has yet to be finalized on eight states, but Casa said the numbers so far show 64% of the schools that responded had “access” to athletic trainers, either full-time or part-time school employees or contracted through clinics. Casa said 6,958 of 15,265 schools contacted had responded.

“It is great momentum for us, but we still have further to go,” said Casa, who added that the Korey Stringer Institute has found that almost 80% of the deaths are occurring in schools with no athletic trainer. “The deaths are happening in those other one third of schools,” said Casa.

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