High school athletic trainers do more than you might think

As a certified athletic trainer at Archbishop Spalding, T.J. Morgan considers himself fortunate. He has never had to deal with a catastrophic situation in 14 years of administering to Cavaliers student-athletes.

Such situations are rare, but should he face one, Morgan, like dozens of other trainers working in high schools all over the Baltimore area, is prepared.

"The educational competencies for athletic trainers are changing and there's a greater concept of emergency management, of recognizing emergency situations and being able to act accordingly," said Morgan, who is also the president of the Maryland Athletic Trainers Association. "Certainly, we're not going to push drugs in a cardiac arrest, we're not going to be running the IV lines for someone with heat illness or anything like that, but the crux of what's really changing in our education is recognizing earlier and moving toward definitive care at an earlier state."

The theme for March's National Athletic Training Month is "Athletic Trainers Save Lives," and Morgan wants to get the word out that they do a lot more for high school athletes than tape weak joints and ice sore muscles.

Recently, Morgan spoke to the Anne Arundel County Fire Department's paramedic recertification classes about how some athletic equipment, especially in sports such as football and ice hockey, can inhibit emergency care, but it was also a chance for emergency responders to realize the knowledge and skills that athletic trainers have. Certified athletic trainers are licensed by the Maryland Board of Physicians.

"I think high school athletic trainers are becoming more in tune with the concept of emergency care and the integration between the services we provide and those that come when we call 911," said Morgan, who is also an emergency medical technician with the Odenton Volunteer Fire Department. "At the high school level, we're looking to form stronger bonds and charter relationships with those emergency medical services providers that show up, because at the end of the day, it's about patient care."

And, as Morgan has stressed this month, not all lives are saved in crisis situations on the field.

"The concept of athletic trainers save lives is very simple," he said, "whether it's dealing with the stress-related overuse injuries, the exertional injuries, sudden cardiac collapse or the kid who comes in and is in an emotional state. I had a kid who reported to me that he just felt like things were spiraling out of control and he didn't know what to do. You get him to the proper resources, the definitive care provider, and it makes all the difference in the world. We're saving lives in more ways than just what people think of, doing CPR and things like that."

In the Baltimore area, most high schools have access to certified athletic trainers. Nearly all of the private schools and all Howard County schools have them on staff. Some other counties share them between schools or have alliances with private clinics, Morgan said.

Being around student-athletes on a regular basis, trainers treat nagging injuries as well as rehab season-ending injuries, and they can also prevent situations that can lead to the kinds of everyday injuries that take up most of a high school trainer's time. Who knows how keeping those youngsters in the game might affect their lives down the road.

"As I look at the injury statistics, the rate of catastrophic injury has not increased significantly," Morgan said. "We are seeing an increase in the number of overall injuries from muscle strains, ligament strains, fractures, dislocations."

Some of that is a result of boys and girls starting to play sports before they reach elementary school. Over time, wear and tear on muscles and joints adds up.

Overtraining also can contribute to these types of injuries. While Morgan said most coaches now recognize the signs of overtraining, coaches aren't the only ones pushing young athletes. Their own drive — and that of their parents — to get a scholarship is often the catalyst behind a jam-packed sports schedule.

"You see kids nowadays who are going 365 [days a year], and they're doing, in some cases, two sports in the same season," he said. "At what point does the body get the rest that it needs? Elite athletes like professional baseball players, professional football players, professional hockey players, NASCAR drivers — and you can take it down to the college level, still considered elite athletes — they have off seasons for a reason. The body needs a chance to recover."

Morgan said high school athletes are considered pediatric patients, and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 60 days off from an activity per calendar year.

As long as most elite teen athletes ignore that advice, Morgan and his fellow athletic trainers are sure to be kept busy.


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