With temperatures predicted to drop below freezing for three of this weekend's four NFL Wild Card Playoff Games, the conditions could become harrowing for players and fans.
NFL Evolution contributing editor Bill Bradley conducted an email interview with Dr. Matthew Matava, the president of the NFL Physicians Society on Saturday. The St. Louis Rams lead physician discussed the injury factor for players and what they might do to prevent getting hurt in the severe cold.
What are the biggest health issues players face by playing in below-freezing temperatures during playoff games this weekend?
Cold weather may present a challenge to players, coaches, medical staff and other sideline personnel if any one of the following is present: 1.) Temperature of 40 degrees and below or 2.) Wet (rain, snow, ice, high humidity) or wet clothes at temperatures below 60 degrees. In addition, winds with speed above 5 mph in combination with wet conditions and temperature 40 degrees or below increase the risk of cold injury. The most common medical conditions facing football players in sub-freezing temperatures are hypothermia, frostbite and cold-induced asthma.
Are there any injuries they might suffer that they might not face otherwise?
There are no musculoskeletal injuries unique to the cold, however, players will be at an increased risk for muscle strains and tears, usually to the hamstrings, quadriceps and calf muscles. Since the ball is harder, there is a risk for fractures of the hand and fingers when trying to catch or receive the ball. Those players who participate in a game only intermittently (i.e. punters, kickers, special teams players) are at a heightened risk as they are expected to go "all out," such as on a punt or kickoff, without a significant "warm up". Players should also be mindful of the fact that the ground will be harder which, at least theoretically, increases the risk of contact-related injuries.
What do players do to prepare for such cold weather? Is it true they undergo "Vaseline baths"?
Players will dress in multiple layers of modern synthetic clothes that maintain body heat while wicking sweat away from the body. They will often coat exposed skin with either a petroleum-based ointment or other like-agents to maintain body heat as well as protect the skin from cold wind. Many players will put tight-fitting surgical gloves under their playing gloves to help retain heat. Chemical hand warmers are often placed within the players' gloves and shoes to provide local heat to the extremities. Hydration should also be maintained. To do so, players will often drink warm chicken broth in addition to water and sports drinks during a game as a means of warming the body. The soup not only replenishes body fluids but also electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, and chlorine that may be dissipated from sweat and elevated metabolism needed to stay warm.
How do players keep muscles warm and stretched in such conditions?
They will begin stretching in the locker room while they are still warm, and then gradually increase their muscular activity in cold weather. There are space heaters on the sidelines and warming benches that work very well to warm multiple players at one time. Each sideline will also have a stationary bicycle for the players in order to allow prolonged muscle activity to reduce the risk of muscle strains and tears.
Is hypothermia ever a problem on NFL fields?
Hypothermia is not a common problem in football as the players have multiple safeguards in place (i.e., equipment, clothing, heaters, warm liquids) to protect them from hypothermia during the game. However, each team's medical staff will be observing for signs of hypothermia in not only the players but also in the coaches and theother team's personnel on the sideline.
For team trainers, is it tougher to detect injuries in such conditions?
NFL athletic trainers are very adept at planning for, recognizing and treating cold-related injuries and medical conditions. In general, most musculoskeletal injuries will be detected despite the cold. There are no specific diagnostic methods used specifically in cold weather.
What role does a frozen or harder field play in these conditions?
A frozen surface is harder, which means that any direct contact with the ground may increase the risk of fractures, contusions, and/or head injuries.