The Pittsburgh Steelers are set to play the Denver Broncos in the first round of the playoffs on January 8, 2012. The game will be held in the high altitude and low oxygen conditions of Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver. Unfortunately, for Steelers S Ryan Clark, this means he will not be able to play and he has been pulled out of the game.
Clark carries the sickle cell trait in his blood and when exposed to high altitude and reduced oxygen, this condition can become life-threatening. Clark learned this in 2007 when he last played in Denver. That game cost him his spleen and gallbladder, as well as a loss of 30 pounds and an end to his season. He thought he was going to die.
So what exactly is sickle cell and how is it affected by high altitude and reduced oxygen?
Sickle cell affects the red blood cells in the body. It is caused by a trait that is acquired from both parents.
Healthy red blood cells are round in shape and designed to move easily through the blood vessels. They carry the iron-rich protein called hemoglobin which carries oxygen throughout your body. In people with sickle cell disease, these red blood cells are crescent shaped and carry abnormal hemoglobin. Because of the shape of the cells, they can also block blood flow in the vessels. This can cause pain, organ damage and serious infections.
In order to have sickle cell disease, you need to have received the sickle cell trait from both of your parents. However, if you only receive the trait from one parent, you are diagnosed with sickle cell trait. This means that you will more than likely not have symptoms of the disease but can see complications under certain conditions.
Ryan Clark is considered to have sickle cell trait. He does not suffer from the disease on a regular basis but can experience complications and can pass the trait to his children.
Complications for those carrying the sickle cell trait occur under conditions of high atmospheric pressure, low oxygen levels, dehydration and high altitudes. Unfortunately for Clark, those account for many of the conditions in Denver. The higher altitude and reduced oxygen can be difficult enough for healthy individuals to receive enough oxygen for their body, but with sickle cell trait it becomes even more difficult.
While the idea of missing the first playoff game is not appealing to Clark, neither is a risk of potential complications. This is not the first game he has missed because of this condition. The Steelers have played Denver two times since that game in 2007 and Clark was pulled out of both of them.