Whether you are a recreational or professional athlete, warming up and sweating is part of playing the game. However, overheating can be very common in athletes, especially those playing soccer. Since soccer matches and practices are usually completed outdoors with limited breaks during a match for water and rest, soccer players are at a greater risk of overheating during play. To help combat this, soccer organizations including FIFA and MLS have introduced rules requiring hydration breaks under certain heat conditions. Also, players who are not at their peak training level are more susceptible to illnesses caused by high heat and humidity.
Soccer players can experience heat illness ranging from heat cramps and heat exhaustion to a heat stroke, all of which present with different symptoms. For example, a player with heat cramps may present with symptoms like fatigue, thirst, and muscle spasms. Symptoms related to heat exhaustion include lightheadedness, headache, dizziness, vomiting, and chills. Meanwhile, heat stroke symptoms include changes in the central nervous system, such as an altered mental state, confusion, irritability, lethargy and seizure.
One of the most important aspects of beating the heat during soccer practice and a match is awareness and understanding of the effects of heat and how to avoid overheating while being active.
Here are five recommendations that I typically provide to my patients at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) to reduce the risk of overheating while playing a sport like soccer:
- Wear loose-fitting and light-colored clothing to remain cool
- Stay hydrated and rest often
- Practices and matches in the morning and/or evening are a good way to avoid playing during the warmest times of the day
- Avoid medications that increase risk of heat-related illnesses, like antihistamines
- Adapt to the climate over a 10-14 day period if possible by slowly increasing your heat exposure.
Please keep in mind that treatment of heat-related illnesses depends on the severity. For mild heat-related cramping, an athlete should be removed from play and given fluid replacements and gentle stretching before returning. When a player experiences heat exhaustion, he or she should be moved to a cool environment with legs elevated and excess clothing and equipment removed, all while being rehydrated.
If heat stroke occurs or is suspected – this is a medical emergency and 911 should be called – the athlete should be removed from play and immediately cooled with cold water and ice immersion if available (ice packs placed on the neck, armpit and groin is an acceptable alternative if an ice bath is not available). Once a player is cooled following a heat stroke, he or she should be taken to the nearest hospital for evaluation. If you have any questions about heat-related illnesses, you should speak with your physician and athletic trainers prior to training and playing a sport.
Reviewed on June 14, 2018.
Dr. David A. Wang is a sports medicine physician at Hospital for Special Surgery specializing in the treatment of acute and overuse injuries. His main clinical and research interests are overuse injuries, concussions, viscosupplementation injections, and the pre-participation physical exam. As a former collegiate baseball player, he also has a special interest in the care of baseball players. Dr. Wang currently practices at Hospital for Special Surgery’s Manhattan campus and Paramus Outpatient Center.