The chill pill

It can be very difficult for people to perform or function the way they once did when returning to school or sports after a long absence. This holds especially true for athletes who are out of shape following the off-season and whose bodies are no longer used to practicing in the heat.

That is why head medical team physician for the Department of Athletics Eric Coris and other doctors did a study with the USF football team involving a heat pill that aids in the prevention of heat stroke by monitoring the core temperature of athletes.

The study took place during the football preseason practices in mid-August, the time that the players are most susceptible to heat stroke.

“The time that’s most dangerous for football players is when they first put on pads at the beginning of the season and they’re training very hard in the August heat without a lot of breaks,” Coris said.

“We’ve been working on research for the last several years, trying to identify heat illness earlier and try to treat it before it becomes heat stroke,” said Coris, who is also an assistant professor of Family Medicine and director of the Sports Medicine Institute at USF. “And that’s really where this pill research came out of.”

Coris’ studies stem from a personal interest in the dangers of heat illness for athletes.

“I have always been interested in heat illness from Korey Stringer’s death up at Minnesota,” Coris said. “When I was (working) at Ohio State, he had played at Ohio State. It was a huge impact. (It) really awakened people to the significant nature of heat stroke in the athletic community.”

The death of Stringer and others from heat stroke in the pro and college levels has caused the NFL to take notice, Coris said, which is why the NFL awarded Coris and his team a grant to do the study.

“We had a grant from the National Football League, to test (the heat pill) on our offensive and defensive linemen,” Coris said. “Those are generally the athletes at highest risk.”

Monitoring an athlete’s core temperature to prevent heat illness used to be an invasive procedure for an athlete, Coris said, but the heat pill makes the process easier on the athlete and the physician.

“Previously, you basically had to have a bunch of wires running from the athlete to your machine to measure core temperature,” Coris said. “With this, it’s a little ingestible silicone tablet about the size of a large multi-vitamin.”

This is the way the pill works, according to a press release from the USF health department: The player swallows it two hours before practice, allowing it time to absorb into the small intestine. Each pill contains a battery, an electronic transmitter and a crystal temperature sensor. The sensor responds to the body’s internal temperature and transmits a reading via a low-frequency magnetic signal that is measured by a data recorder held to the back or the chest.

“The data recorder reads radio frequency sound waves to interpret the pill and then it transmits it from an antenna on the athletic trainer back to my laptop computer on the sidelines so that I can watch the temperatures change,” said Coris. “We can track not only how high their temperature got, but how rapidly it got there.”

The pill itself is made by HQ Inc., a company based in Palmetto. The pill’s technology is licensed from John’s Hopkins University, which created the pill in the 1980s with a grant from NASA, the USF health department press release stated.

Using this technology, Coris said, “is not cheap. The pills themselves are about $40 a piece and they have to take one every day. The data recorder to interpret the pills is about $2,500. It’s tough to do it every day of every practice. You have to kind of pick time periods and players that you think are most at risk.”

Coris said he hopes to continue the study with the heat pill during future football preseasons and also expand the study to other sports.

“I’m going to submit another grant to the NFL and give them our preliminary data,” he said. “I hope either this coming year or the year after that we’ll able to do a larger project with even more players over a longer period of time to really get a better understanding of heat illness and how it correlates with symptoms and other typical indicators of dehydration.

“There’s not been a lot of work (with the heat pill study) in other sports,” Coris added. “Most of the interest has been in football. One of the things I would like to do is get some funding so I could do it in some of the other sports to see if there’s an issue, particularly with cross country and track. You have athletes that are running for long periods of time in the heat, and then it’s not uncommon for them to collapse at the end of a long racem and you worry about their risk for heat stroke.”

Greg Thiel, coach of men’s and women’s cross country and track teams, said he would be interested in having his athletes participate in a possible study.

“I’d be very open to the study. As long as the (track and cross country) sports medicine department is fine with it, we’d definitely be interested,” Thiel said.

Heat stroke, Thiel said, “can be a problem for the non-fit athlete and even for the fit athlete. In our climate down South where we’re running, it’s definitely important in this area (to be aware of heat stroke).”

Thiel said he sees the need for this type of study with high school athletes as well.

“It’s a concern across the board, but especially with the high school athletes. I see great help with high school athletes because they do not have the medical staff and trainers like we do.”