Epilepsy can be managed with proper attention to detail

University of Minnesota head football coach Jerry Kill recently had an epileptic seizure on the sideline.  While this isn’t the first time it has happened, it is the first time this event has gained national attention.

The brain consists of a network of nerve cells that function similarly to a mass of electrical wires.  Electrical impulses are the result of changes in the balance of chemical ions along the nerve cells.

A generalized tonic-clonic seizure, previously referred to as grand mal, is an event that results from an abnormal spark along these nerve cells.  This creates a short circuit that spreads across the brain causing muscles throughout the body to contract uncontrollably.

Epilepsy is best defined as a condition of unprovoked recurrent seizures.  It affects 3 million Americans.  Controlling epilepsy is accomplished through the use of medications, lifestyle changes and possibly surgery. 

The human body functions best when it reaches a state where everything is kept constant.  That means eating, sleeping and exercising at the same time every day.  Unfortunately, this presents a great challenge to controlling seizures in patients who have erratic schedules, including athletes and coaches.

The recent episode that involved Jerry Kill drew the attention of the press and fans, but his players and coaches were able to adjust and proceed with the game.  This is due to the fact that he has been open about his condition and prepared them for this situation.

“How can a school continue to employ a football coach who has had four seizures during or after the 16 home games he has coached for the school?” wrote Jim Souhan, a Minneapolis sportswriter.

Souhan’s insensitive comments have raised the attention of many regarding epilepsy in athletes. 

In order to more effectively manage epilepsy, athletes and coaches must carefully monitor workout, sleep and travel schedules.

The pitfalls of "cutting weight"

Losing dramatic amounts of weight prior to an athletic event has become a common practice in some sports.  Unfortunately, “cutting weight” can be a deadly practice.

In sports where an athlete’s weight determines the level of competition, losing weight in order to compete at a lower weight class has become a strategic move.  The goal is to lose weight for the weigh-in and then gain the weight back before the event.

Wrestling, rowing, boxing and mixed martial arts (MMA) are sports where this dangerous practice has become an acceptable part of preparation.

Human physiology is based on a delicate balance of fluid and electrolytes that allow vital organs to function efficiently.  Large shifts of fluid and electrolytes disrupt this balance, resulting in organs shutting down.

Common symptoms include dizziness, weakness, nausea, confusion and heart palpitations.  Physical signs of rapid pulse, low blood pressure and concentrated urine are indicative of impending danger.

Dehydration and rehydration over a short period of time raises the chances of severe brain injury.  This is especially dangerous in combat sports like boxing and MMA where head trauma is common.

A recent MMA weigh-in at the Mohegan Sun Casino emphasizes the problem.  Two athletes arrived at the weigh-in with clear signs that they had cut weight. The medical staff and Department of Athletic Regulation, in cooperation with the promoter, took the rare action of cancelling those bouts.  Those athletes lost an opportunity to earn a significant purse.  One athlete landed in a local emergency room with kidney failure.

"It is imperative that sports which utilize weight classes also utilize a hydration check at weigh-ins to assure that athletes do not reach dangerous levels of dehydration in order to make weight,” said Dr. Douglas Casa, professor of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut and an expert in the field of hydration in sports.  “The recent cancellation of MMA events at the Mohegan Sun highlight the risks associated with this,” said Casa.

Education of athletes about the dangers of cutting weight can be lifesaving.