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Lightning: The Uncontrollable in Sports Medicine

Author: Barbara J. Morris, MS, ATC, CSCS


In the world of sports medicine major emphasis is place on prevention. Are the athletes conditioned properly? Has the rehabilitation process brought them back to an appropriate level to return to competition? Has hydration been appropriately delivered and monitored? The sports medicine professional can directly monitor and to an extent control most of these arenas. When speaking of control in the sports medicine realm the big uncontrollable is LIGHTNING.

According to the National Athletic Trainers' Position Statement on Lightning, it is one of the top 3 causes of weather related deaths. It kills approximately100 people yearly and is responsible for approximately 500 injuries. Lightning can strike far from where it is raining, sometimes in clear skies. According to the National Severe Storm Laboratory, (NSSL) lightning can and does strike as far as 10 miles away from the rain. The adage goes, “If you can see it (lightning), flee it, and if you can hear it (thunder), clear it. If not using some sort of lightning detection device the 30-30 rule should be implemented. That rule is; when the “flash to bang” count approaches 30 seconds all individuals should be in the appointed shelter. The NSSL states that safe structures are any buildings normally occupied or frequently used by people. (Buildings with plumbing and/or electrical wiring that acts to ground the building). If no building is available any vehicle with a hard metal roof and windows rolled up is better than the outdoors. (DO NOT TOUCH THE SIDES OF THE VEHICLE). If a safe structure is not available one should seek a thick grove of small trees surrounded by taller trees or a dry ditch. The lightning position should be assumed immediately. If an individual should feel the hair stand on their skin tingle they should assume the lightning safe position; which is crouched on the ground, weight on the balls of their feet, feet together, head down, with the ears covered. The idea is to have the least amount of surface area as possible in contact with the ground and to be as compact as possible.

Once activity has been suspended, NSSL recommends a minimum of 30 minutes should pass prior to resuming activity. This should be strictly adhered to.

It is imperative that the activity coordinators have a lightning safe policy in place with an emergency action plan in the event of a strike. Individuals who have been struck do not carry a charge therefore life support measures can be initiated immediately.

The key to controlling the uncontrollable is rational quick decision making as the weather begins to deteriorate. Keeping in mind that lightning can come from blue skies. Monitoring of the weather service is very helpful when conducting outdoor events and having all staff trained appropriately so the emergency action plan becomes second nature.

National Lightning Safety Institute, 891 North Hoover, PO Box 778, Louisvill Colorado, 80027. www.lightingsafety.com

National Severe Storms Laboratory, NOAA, 1313 Hally Circle, Norman, OK 73069

Walsh, KM, et.al, National Athletic Trainers' Association Position Statement: Lightning Safety for Athletics and Recreation. Journal of Athletic Training, 35 (4): 471-477, 2000.

Holle, Rl. Lopez, RE. Howard, KW. Vavrek, J. Allsopp. J. Safety in the Presence of Lightning. Semin Neurol. 15: 375-380, 1995.

Pictures: Lightning Research Laboratory University of FL, www.lightning.ece.ufl.edu

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