There still is a lot of confusion when it comes to dealing with sickle cell. What is it? Who should be tested? What happens if I test positive? All are valid questions worth answering. To start, sickle cell trait is not a disease. It is an inheritance of one gene from a parent that causes the red blood cells, hemoglobin, to “sickle” during physical activity. The trait is found in all races and ethnic groups; however, those of African and Middle Eastern decent may be more predisposed than other groups. During intense exercise, the red blood cells can change shape from round to a quarter moon or “sickle” shape. The sickle red blood cells can accumulate in the blood stream during intense exercise, blocking normal blood flow. This can result in physical distress and even death.
Recently the NCAA has recommended that all athletes be tested for the sickle cell trait. Most states now require that newborn babies are tested for sickle cell trait, however most people are not told of the results unless they test positive and even then many people do not remember being told or can no longer find the results. I often get asked the question of why do we test everyone when it is mainly seen in the African American community. Although this is a true statement, it is seen in every race. Just this year, we had a white male test positive for sickle cell trait. This proves that although more rare, it does show up in every race.
So what happens if the test is positive? Many people seem to think that testing positive for sickle cell will somehow eliminate them from participation. This is completely false. As stated before, people with the trait may be more prone to distress, especially when exercising in hot and humid conditions. Those that test positive need to follow a few simple rules. First, they need to be allowed to slowly acclimatize themselves to the heat and intensity of workouts. Secondly, they need more frequent water breaks as dehydration can speed up the sickling effect. Thirdly, more rest is needed during bouts of intense, repetitive exercise to not get overheated. Unlike heat related or cardiac problems, athletes with sickle cell may present as just being tired but have ischemic pain and muscle weakness. Pushing the athlete through this can lead to death.
On Wednesday April 11 at 3:00 pm, the CDC will try to separate fact from fiction. Dr. Althea Grant, an expert on sickle cell trait and other blood disorders, will be taking and answering your questions. Participate in the chat by asking questions at https://www.facebook.com/CDC. Please direct any questions about the chat to: firstname.lastname@example.org.