This Friday marks the Opening Ceremonies for the 2014 XXII Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. I was surprised to learn from a recent study that 50 percent of these winter Olympians suffer from exercise-induced asthma and respiratory problems due to vigorous exercise in extreme temperatures.
Today I spoke with WAKR morning show host Ray Horner about this topic. Below is an audio file and transcript of our discussion.
DR. CONGENI: Hey Ray, how ya doing?
HORNER: We’re getting through it, that’s for sure. What do you have for us today?
DR. CONGENI: Well, you know what, it doesn’t seem – at least in my world – that I’m hearing a lot of buzz about the Olympics. But I wanted to talk about one study that came out and really kind of surprised me a little bit. I just saw it in January of this year and this number surprised me.
Fifty percent of our winter sport athletes (now), especially at the highest level of the Olympics, are struggling with exercise-induced bronchospasm, exercise-induced asthma or breathing problems when they exercise.
The cross country skiers, the world class ice skaters, the hockey players – (all make up that) 50 percent. Now traditionally, we say in most high level athletes, that number is about 15 percent. They tested summer Olympic athletes a couple years ago and (found) 17 percent of Olympic level runners have exercise (induced) asthma. Their airways narrow down when they exercise and they have problems with shortness of breath and coughing.
But 50 percent, half of them in the winter Olympians, that really surprised me! One of the questions (to ask) – is training that strenuously outside bad for the respiratory tree, the breathing? Is it a long-term thing or is just short-term?
And one other thing it brought up is the old theory that the cold air triggered this bronchial narrowing. It’s kind of like when you wear gloves outside, the vessels narrow down. Then when you go back inside, they open back up again and that would cause spasms in the airways. People thought that’s why they hacked and coughed and had trouble breathing when they were exercising in the cold.
Now it’s back to kind of a dehydration of the bronchial tubes theory, and they’ve studied it, and they think that’s what it is. There just is not enough moisture in the airway. So whatever it is, the fact is that people training more than 20 hours a week in cold air actually injure their airways by having to breathe so hard, for so long. The question: Is there any permanent issue with these athletes?
In wrapping it up, a couple of things that people are doing, you know some things that people can do. Number one, you need to exercise less than 20 hours a week. Reduce your exercise load. The problem is when you’re down less than 20 hours a week, you’re not going to stay one of the most elite athletes in the world, so that doesn’t work really well.
The other thing is people are trying to change their breathing patterns by breathing through their nose more, wearing a face mask or trying to have a real hard warm up where you actually trick the respiratory tree.
But there’s no question that exercising in the cold (causes damage). There are lots of studies going on. As we see our winter Olympians starting Friday night, knowing that 50 percent of them really struggle with breathing problems when they’re exercising, was really an eye opener to me.
HORNER: Alright, good stuff Joe. Get through the weather. We’ll catch up with you next week.
DR. CONGENI: Alright, Ray. Have a good week.
HORNER: You too. Dr. Joe Congeni, Sports Medicine Center at Akron Children’s Hospital, with us.