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Chronic Conditions, Kids and Sports: Type 1 Diabetes

Having a chronic health condition doesn’t mean that your child has to sit out of the game. Plenty of athletes have health issues that don’t stop them from practicing, playing and competing. One of the major chronic conditions that affects athletes is type 1 diabetes. Pro football players Jay Cutler and Kendall Simmons have it, and so do basketball players Chris Dudley and Adam Morrison, and baseball player Ron Santo. Formerly known just as juvenile diabetes, type 1 often has an onset in childhood or adolescence (but it’s also possible to develop it as an adult as well). People with this disease do not produce insulin on their own. That means they need to monitor their blood sugar, watch what they eat and take insulin injections. Whether your child has this chronic condition or you coach a child with it, understanding how type 1 diabetes and sports impacts each other is critical for the athlete’s health and success.

Blood Sugar and Activity

It’s common to see a drop in blood glucose (blood sugar) levels with or after exercise. What does this mean for a child who plays sports? To start with, it’s absolutely essential for the child to monitor their blood sugar during practice and directly after. Of course, proper blood glucose testing is always a must-do. When you add in physical activity, the child may see a sudden drop. These lows can result in serious symptoms such as dizziness, weakness, nausea, seizures, or unconsciousness.

Many diabetics are able to feel lows as they come on, before they get too severe. But, a child who is intensely into an activity or doesn’t want to leave the playing field may ignore the signs. This puts them at risk for developing hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Keep in mind, lows don’t always happen with exercise. For some diabetics, activity-induced hypoglycemia strikes minutes or hours after the exercise is over. This makes post-practice/post-game monitoring extra-important.

Keeping Lows Away

Along with monitoring, the child’s doctor may recommend eating an extra snack before or during exercise. Before starting any new sport, always speak with the medical pro. Ask the doctor for recommendations on dealing with potential lows. Every child is different, and you need to make sure that the treatment matches the diabetic’s overall plan and needs.

Most children will need to keep a small snack nearby just in case of an unexpected low. This is typically equal to 15 grams of carbs, and may include a juice box, fruit snacks or some other carbohydrate. Children can also carry glucose tablets to eat if needed. In the event of a low blood glucose emergency, injectable glucagon is a medication that can raise the level. Diabetics should carry a glucagon kit with them at all times, just in case. Parents and coaches should know when and how to use these injectable kits. They are literally life savers.

Some children may need to stop part-way through practice or a game to test their blood sugar and eat a small snack. This can prevent or reduce the risk of hypoglycemia.

Spotting Problems

It’s the middle of a soccer game. One of the children, a diabetic, is starting to seem sluggish. The child is confused, complaining of weakness, and appears nervous. These are often symptoms of hypoglycemia. These, along with other signs such as headaches, sweating, chills, clamminess, irritability, sleepiness, anger (for no real reason) and lack of coordination, may all mean that the child needs a dose of carbs.

If you spot a possible problem, stop the child immediately. Time is not a diabetic’s friend when it comes to lows. Have the child test their blood sugar. If the level is low, treat it with glucose tablets or a snack. Instead of letting the child go back into the game right away, wait 15 minutes. Have the child re-test. If the blood sugar is still low, have another serving of carbs and wait again to re-test. If it’s normal, the child can go back to the activity.

Medical Professionals and Education

Including the child’s doctor in the choice to play a sport is necessary. Unless there are other issues going on, it’s unlikely that the doctor would nix the notion of playing a sport. The medical professional can create a revised treatment plan, taking the new physical activity into account. The doctor can also provide coaches or teammates with extra information on type 1 diabetes. Along with the doctor, organizations such as the American Diabetes Association, are resources that offer plenty of easy to understand information.

Type 1 diabetes is a complex chronic condition. Exercise can bring on life-threatening lows. Obviously, this is a scary thought for any diabetic, parent or coach. Even though physical activity can drop the child’s blood sugar, exercise and athletics are important for the diabetic’s overall health. Unless a doctor says otherwise, quitting the team because of a diabetes diagnosis is completely unnecessary. From pee-wee football players to pro stars, athletes of all ages practice, play their games and still manage type 1 diabetes in healthy ways.