Local high schools are kicking off an exciting time of the year: football practice.

With two-a-day practices, heavy football equipment and the heat and humidity soaring in August, athletes are at risk for heat-related problems. Exertional heat illness, resulting from exercising in hot and/or humid conditions, most commonly causes simple muscle cramps that can be treated with stretching, ice and massage.

More severe heat problems can, however, result in heat exhaustion or even potentially fatal heatstroke.

Since 1995, 39 football players have died in the United States from heat stroke — 29 of those were high school students, according to the Annual Survey of Football Injury Research.

"Being located in the Southeast, the high humidity and temperatures put our athletes at risk for heat-related problems," said Dr. Gary Windler, a sports medicine physician with Trident Health System.

"Each year, we all read about an athlete who dies from heat stroke. Rather than become a statistic and then react, we decided as a community to move forward with measures to try to reduce that risk."

As a result, Trident Sports Medicine & Rehabilitation formed an Exertional Heat Illness Task Force earlier this year to take a close look at this important issue with emphasis on prevention.

Based on current sports medicine information, the task force has established recommendations for on-site treatment that includes immediate immersion in an ice water bath for any athlete suspected of suffering from heat stroke. Ice bath immersion is the most effective way to lower core body temperature.

See Tuesday's paper for ways to prevent heatstroke on these hot August days, and more on the task force's recommendations.