Spleen Injuries in Sports - What Parents Need to Know

Spleen Injuries in Sports – What Parents Need to Know

The lacerated spleen, and subsequent death, suffered recently by a New Jersey high school football player has brought a lot of attention to spleen injuries in athletics. Many parents may be wondering what this injury is and what can be done to recognize and prevent spleen injuries and tragic complications.

The spleen is an organ located on the left side of the abdomen, typically protected underneath the rib cage. It is part of the body’s immune system and its main job is to filter blood and fight certain infections. Because of its function, the spleen contains large quantities of blood and when the spleen is injured it can lead to massive internal bleeding.

Although rare, splenic rupture is the most frequent cause of death due to abdominal injury in sports. It occurs most commonly from direct trauma to, or a fall onto, the left side of the lower chest wall or abdomen. An enlarged spleen, which can occur with certain infections (most commonly Mononucleosis or “Mono”), cancers and blood diseases, can make the spleen more susceptible to injury.

Spleen injuries typically cause sharp pain on the left side of the abdomen that may sometimes radiate up into the shoulder. An athlete with abdominal pain after a traumatic injury to that area should seek medical attention from a physician or certified athletic trainer. If any significant or worsening pain or tenderness is present on the left side of the abdomen, or if the athlete displays signs of low blood pressure such as rapid pulse and breathing, or dizziness and sweating, s/he should be taken to the hospital immediately.

Prevention

During Pre-participation Physical Exams or “Sports Physicals” doctors will assess the spleen size during the abdominal exam and athletes may be temporarily prohibited from certain sports if an enlarged spleen is found.

Athletes should seek care from a physician if “mono” is suspected or has been diagnosed before resuming physical activity as the spleen may be enlarged and susceptible to injury even after the athlete feels well enough to return to play. Having a certified athletic trainer present at all contact practices and games can help to identify such injuries.

Athletes, parents, coaches and medical professionals should all have a low threshold of suspicion for splenic rupture after an abdominal trauma as signs and symptoms of such injuries may be subtle.

Before your child begins participation in organized school or recreational activities, be sure to arrange a sports physical for them by calling your pediatrician or family doctor.

Steven Cuff
Dr. Steven Cuff is a Sports Medicine physician and co-director of the Sports Concussion Program at Nationwide Children’s. He is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. Dr. Cuff is board certified in pediatrics and sports medicine by the American Board of Pediatrics. He currently serves on the Ohio AAP's Home and School Health committee as co-chair of the Sports Medicine Sub-committee. He is also a member of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine and serves on their Education committee. Follow Sports Medicine at Nationwide Children’s Hospital on Facebook and Twitter. @NCHSportsMed

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