Sickle cell trait: What every athlete needs to know

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- While much focus has been placed on preventing sports injuries and the importance of hydration, especially here in Texas, student athletes with the sickle cell trait must take extra precautions or face the possibility of deadly consequences.

It's a devastating reality former NFL player Devard Darling knows all too well.

Darling's identical twin brother, Devaughn Darling, died in 2001 after a rigorous football practice at Florida State University left him feeling dehydrated and exhausted.

RELATED: Run with ABC13 at the 2020 Darling Dash Memorial 10k/5k/1k this Sunday

"Everyone was scrambling for water at the end, and he was sitting there with an ice pack on his neck, getting tended by the trainers," Darling told Eyewitness News. "They rushed him down to the training room... it seemed like it took forever for EMS to get there. It was like a bad dream."

Sadly, neither twin knew they were carriers of the sickle cell trait.

What is Sickle Cell Trait?

The CDC says sickle cell trait is an inherited red blood cell condition. People with the trait inherit one sickle cell gene and one normal gene, posing possible risk for athletes during intense exercise as blood cells can sickle, blocking blood vessels.

The complication can become lethal when you add conditions like heat, dehydration, inadequate acclimatization, altitude and asthma to the mix.

A simple blood test can determine whether a person has sickle cell trait, and people with SCT typically show no symptoms of sickle cell disease.

Sickle Cell Trait and Family Planning

A carrier of the sickle cell trait can pass it on to their children.

If both parents have SCT, there is a 25 percent chance a child will also inherit the trait, according to the CDC. If the child inherits the sickle cell gene from one of his or her parents, that chance rises to 50 percent.

One in every 13 black children is born with sickle cell trait, but don't let that fool you into a false sense of security. It's a condition that affects people of many backgrounds:
  • Caucasians: Three cases per 1,000 births
  • Hispanic ethnicities: Nearly seven cases per 1,000 births
  • Asian or Pacific Islander: About two cases per 1,000 births


Athletes with Sickle Cell Trait Must Take Precautions

As Darling knows, having the trait is not a barrier to playing competitive sports.

After he was not reinstated by FSU for his remaining eligibility, he was cleared to play football at Washington State, becoming one of the best wide receivers in the school's history with 16 touchdowns and over 1,500 yards in two years.

Darling also played for the Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs before joining the Houston Texans in 2011.

But he wouldn't have made his dreams on the field come true without taking care of his health, and now he's spreading the message along with the foundation he started in honor of his twin brother.

In addition to creating awareness for sickle cell trait testing, As One Foundation highlights the importance of hydration for athletes, especially on the high school and collegiate levels.

You can help fight to prevent future deaths by joining the 2020 Darling Dash Memorial 10k/5k/1k Race for #SickleCellTrait Presented by UT Physicians in Houston on Feb. 23, 2020. You can register for the event at www.AsOneFoundation.org. Use code ABC13Discount at check out for a $6 discount.

The race at Stude Park in the Heights will help raise much-needed funds to expand free SCT testing and awareness of the condition.

How to Prevent Illness While Playing Sports

The CDC suggests these tips to help keep athletes with sickle cell trait safe while participating in competitive or team sports:
  • Set your own pace and build your intensity slowly
  • Rest often in between repetitive sets and drills
  • Drink plenty of water before, during and after training and conditioning activities
  • Keep the body temperature cool when exercising in hot and humid temperatures by misting the body with water or going to an air conditioned area during breaks or rest periods
  • Immediately seek medical care when feeling ill
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