Preventing Cold Weather Sports Injuries

It’s the middle of winter, but fall high school sports seasons postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic are just now getting started. The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) Fall II season runs February 22 to April 25 and includes football, competitive cheerleading, indoor track and unified basketball (which includes those with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team.) Some schools that delayed soccer, field hockey, girls volleyball and girls swimming will also be eligible to play those sports in the Fall II season. COVID-19 remains a concern, but the MIAA announced a number of modifications intended to prevent the spread of the virus. You can view the modifications for each sport at this link

The cold weather is another concern for athletes and coaches. Playing outdoor sports like football, soccer and field hockey in the middle of a cold New England winter raises additional health and safety concerns. The weather in February and March can be unpredictable and extreme caution must be taken to minimize the risk of cold weather injuries

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Cold Weather Injuries

It does not have to be freezing to suffer a cold weather injury -- windy and wet conditions also increase the risk for injuries. Common cold weather injuries include: 

Frostbite -- Frostbite occurs when skin and tissue freezes. It is common on fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks and chin. Exposed skin is most vulnerable, but even covered skin is at risk. Frostnip is the first sign of trouble -- your skin may become red or painful, but at this stage you can rewarm your skin without any long-term damage. However, if skin becomes numb, turns white or bluish gray, frostbite has set in and it is necessary to seek medical attention. You may not know you have frostbite until someone points it out because your skin is numb. Learn more from CareWell about frostbite at this link.

Hypothermia -- Hypothermia occurs when the body temperature falls below 95 degrees; it is important to get medical help immediately. If not treated, the body’s core temperature will continue to fall and can lead to death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that while hypothermia often occurs at extremely cold temperatures, it can occur at cool temperatures (above 40 degrees) if a person becomes wet from either rain, sweat or cold water and becomes chilled. Signs and symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech and drowsiness. Check out these tips from the CDC to avoid, spot and treat frostbite and hypothermia.

Chilblains -- The MIAA and the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFSA) advise teams to watch for a condition known as Chilblains -- an inflammation of blood vessels. Small red bumps form on the skin as a reaction to cold temperatures. Other symptoms include swelling, tenderness, itching and pain. They often affect the skin on your hands and usually clear up in one to three weeks, however, if you develop signs of an infection you should see a doctor. Chilblains can be prevented by limiting exposure to cold temperatures and covering exposed skin. 

Dehydration -- While not an injury, dehydration is a serious medical condition and athletes are more prone to dehydration in the winter. The NFSA says the thirst reflex and the desire to drink liquids may be lowered in the cold weather even though hydration needs remain the same. To prevent dehydration, the MIAA is requiring mandatory water breaks at predetermined times during games. 

Keeping Athletes and Coaching Staff Safe

            Monitor Weather Conditions -- Schools should monitor air temperature, wind, wind chill, rain and snow prior to any outdoor training or competition to determine if it is safe. The MIAA Sports Medicine Committee created this Cold Weather Reference Document to outline best practices for sports and cold weather. 

Clothing -- Athletes should dress appropriately for the weather conditions. Long insulated pants, long-sleeve insulated shirts, gloves, face and ear protection, and socks that wick moisture away from the skin will help prevent cold-weather injuries. Layering clothes will keep the body warm. The base layer should wick sweat and moisture away from the body. Top layers should trap heat and block the wind. If athletes become wet, it is important to get them out of the cold and out of the wet clothes immediately to prevent hypothermia. 

            Appropriate Shelter -- Schools should have a designated area for shelter in case of bad weather. This space should be large enough to allow for social distancing. 

Cold temperatures can be extremely dangerous to the health and safety of athletes, but it is possible to have a successful Fall II season if everyone involved in practices and games is aware of the risks and warning signs. 

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