Special Populations in the ED: Athletes

special populations in the ED athletes

It is common to hear that “when you work in an Emergency Department (ED), you have to be prepared for everything”. In my experience as a medical student, this could not be more true. I’ve seen tea overdose, collision scooter vs horse, and anything in between. All these experiences will contribute to my formation and made me realize that we are not prepared for many situations. Some of these situations may involve specific populations we’re not so familiarized with and sometimes can change the way we manage an emergency.

Here, I want to discuss some of these “special populations” which may demand a different approach than the usual – and that is what makes emergency medicine so interesting. Let’s talk about one of these subgroups of patients: athletes, and what makes them unique.

Athletes: What do I need to know about them?

  • Heart and Hemodynamic: The “athlete’s heart syndrome (1)”
    • Morphological, functional and electrical changes
      • Lower heart rate;
      • Hypertrophic left ventricle (LV)
      • Lifelong cardiac remodelling could lead to arrhythmogenic pathways
  • Changes in autonomic nervous system – vagal tonus
  • Pulmonary efficiency:
    • Unlike what may be the first thought, the respiratory system does not differ greatly in athletes from non-athletes (2).
  • High energy trauma:
    • Be aware that professional athletes are constantly at risk of high energy traumas, in special head traumas (concussions) and limb trauma (fractures);

How could this be a problem?

  • Late signs of hypovolemia
    • The athlete’s autonomic nervous system has pronounced vagal tonus, which leads to the famous resting bradycardia – this could disguise a tachycardia, one of the early signs of hypovolemia (2).
  • Delay in seeking help
    • Elite athletes may delay seeking help or admit they are not feeling well for fear of losing a competition or training sessions.
    • Besides that, in amateur (and sometimes even in professional) level competitions, staff and coaches often are not trained to identify conditions that need prompt medical assistance

Common situations and how to manage

Exercise and health always have been put together in a “cause and consequence” relation. Besides their undeniable positive effects, exercise on the professional level also has its sidebacks and associated risks. Here I want to discuss some physiological changes we observe in the elite athletes and a very common condition in the ED: the sport-related concussion.

Sport-related concussion (3,4) is a traumatic brain injury induced by biomechanical forces. It may be caused either by a direct impact to the head or by a force transmitted from the impact elsewhere in the body; It typically presents with rapid onset of short-lived signs and symptoms; However, the course is sometimes unpredictable and may evolve in minutes to hours; It may or may not have a decreased level of counsciousnes.

The current literature organize the signs and symptoms of sport-related concussion in 4 domains

  1. Somatic
    • Headache, dizziness, gait disturbances, vertigo, nausea and vomiting, near vision impairment
  2. Cognitive
    • Impaired memory (amnesia), slowed speech, confusion,
  3. Sleep
    • Insomnia
  4. Emotional
    • Irritability, labile humour

Given the rapid onset and short duration, the patient might present to the ED with minor or no symptoms; However, the emergency physician still plays an important role, providing supportive care to relieve remaining symptoms and rule out more severe conditions.

Attention

  • Due to the mechanism of trauma, always rule out cervical spine lesions or instability.
  • Also, signs of basilar skull fracture (racoon eyes, Battle’s sign, CSF rhinorrhea)
  • A Glasgow Coma Scale < 13 should raise awareness for a more severe brain lesion.
  • Does this patient need a head CT?
    • Canadian CT head rule (adults)
    • PECARN CT rule (under 16)   

Management (4)

Headache: 86% had significant pain reduction, and 52% had complete headache resolution after receiving an intravenous dose of one or more of the following: ketorolac, prochlorperazine, metoclopramide, chlorpromazine, and ondansetron. Common orally administered analgesics such acetaminophen, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories and triptans have shown efficacy for pain relief, but there are no studies in the ED setting.
 
Dizziness: Suspicion for peripheral vertigo can be confirmed by the Dix-Hallpike manoeuvre and treated with the Epley manoeuvre. Meclizine (vestibular suppressant) and diazepam can be used with caution because of potential side effects on cognition and alertness.
 
To date, rest continues to be recommended for the acute (24-48h) injury period. After that period, patients can be encouraged to become gradually more active, always below their cognitive and physical limits.

When to admit

This decision is based on the patient’s clinical status. Persistent symptoms and alterations on head CT are the most common indications for admission. 
 
Discharging to home: Education is key for recovery and prevention of recurrence (4). Current evidence indicates that written educational material is more effective than orally given instructions only; Important information that should be present in the educational material are expected symptoms, their management and a timeframe of resolution. 
Cite this article as: Arthur Martins, Brasil, "Special Populations in the ED: Athletes," in International Emergency Medicine Education Project, March 8, 2021, https://iem-student.org/2021/03/08/special-populations-in-the-ed-athletes/, date accessed: July 27, 2021

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References and Further Reading

  1. Carbone A, D’Andrea A, Riegler L, Scarafile R, Pezzullo E, Martone F, America R, Liccardo B, Galderisi M, Bossone E, Calabrò R. Cardiac damage in athlete’s heart: When the “supernormal” heart fails! World J Cardiol 2017; 9(6): 470-480 Available from: URL: http://www.wjgnet.com/1949-8462/full/v9/i6/470.htm DOI: http://
    dx.doi.org/10.4330/wjc.v9.i6.470
  2. ACSM’s advanced exercise physiology. — 2nd ed.;Peter A. Farrell, Michael Joyner, Vincent Caiozzo ISBN 978-0-7817-9780-1
  3. McCrory P, Meeuwisse W, Dvorak J, et al. Br J Sports Med 2018;51:838–847
  4. Bazarian JJ, Raukar N, Devera G, et al. Recommendations for the Emergency Department Prevention of Sport-Related Concussion. Ann Emerg Med. 2020;75(4):471-482. doi:10.1016/j.annemergmed.2019.05.032

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