Pittsburgh Steeler Benched in Denver Due to Sickle Cell Trait

Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark has been told by coach Mike Tomlin that he is not playing in this weekend’s wild card game against the Broncos in Denver.

Clark has the blood condition sickle cell trait which can be affected by high altitude.  In a 2007 game there, “Clark became violently ill and lost his spleen and gall bladder because of deprivation of oxygen to his major organs. ”

Despite the fact that Clark is the team’s leading tackler, Coach Tomlin is not taking any chances. According to Clark:

He said he wouldn’t have let his son play and so I’m not playing either.

What is Sickle Cell Disease?

Sickle Cell Disease (SCD) is a genetic condition that is present at birth. In SCD, the red blood cells become hard and sticky and look like a C-shaped farm tool called a “sickle.” The sickle cells die early, which causes a constant shortage of red blood cells. Also,when they travel through small blood vessels, they get stuck and clog the blood flow. This can cause pain and other serious problems. You can read more about SCD in our story about TLC’s T-Boz.

What is Sickle Cell Trait?

People who inherit one sickle cell gene and one normal gene have sickle cell trait (SCT). SCT is very common, affecting 1 in 12 African Americans in the United States.

People with SCT usually do not have any of the symptoms of sickle cell disease (SCD), but they can pass the trait on to their children:

Although most people with SCT do not have any symptoms, in rare cases people with Sickle Trait might experience complications of SCD, such as pain crises.

The following conditions could be harmful for people with SCT:

  • Increased pressure in the atmosphere (which can be experienced, for example, while scuba diving).
  • Low oxygen levels in the air (which can be experienced, for example, when mountain climbing, exercising extremely hard in military boot camp, or training for an athletic competition).
  • Dehydration (for example, when one has too little water in the body).
  • High altitudes (which can be experienced, for example, when flying, mountain climbing, or visiting a city at a high altitude).

Now you see why participating in a playoff game in the “Mile High City” could be a problem for Clark!

How do I know if I have Sickle Cell Trait?

According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), approximately 3 million people living in the United States have SCT and don’t know it.

However, testing is widely available and is done with a simple blood test. You can talk with a doctor or health clinic about getting the test.

Most states also do screening for Sickle Cell Disease and Trait as part of their routine newborn screening.

For more information about Sickle Cell Disease and Sickle Cell Trait, click here to go to the Resounding Health Casebook on the topic.




Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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