Occupational Hazards

It only takes a quick glance at the photos of former UFC heavyweight champion Kevin Randleman and the two gaping holes on the right side of his body to understand the devastating effects of staph infection.

“It looked like someone had taken a shotgun and shot me up close,” says Randleman. After dismissing his symptoms for five weeks, he was admitted to the hospital in septic condition. Doctors were forced to remove portions of Randleman’s lateral and pectoral muscles in an attempt to eradicate the staph bacteria from his body. More than anything, Randleman wants to increase awareness about staph, and have people learn from his experience.

So what do people need to know about staph? Staphylococcus aureus, also known as staph, has always been one of the common occupational hazards among participants in contact sports. While most cases of staph are still associated with hospitals and health care facilities, the emergence of staph within schools and communities has become an increasing concern.

Staph bacteria are normally present in healthy people. While 25% to 30% of the population has staph bacteria present in the nose without causing any type of infection, staph can cause minor infections, such as pimples and boils, which can be treated without antibiotics. In more severe cases, staph can cause surgical wound infections, bloodstream infections, and pneumonia.

Erhardt Bell, a clinical microbiologist and president of PetLabs Diagnostic Laboratories, Inc., explains that a normal healthy amount of bacteria naturally blocks out some of the bad bacteria in our bodies. However, he warns that people, “can’t be bugophobes – you need to have them on you and with you, but if in the wrong amounts or the wrong places, [bacteria] will cause serious problems.”

Says Bell, “The largest organ on your body is your skin. Microorganisms work on a very simple basis. They are looking for a place to live and nothing more, somewhere that is warm, moist, and dark. If you have a break in your skin, that is all they need to get in. If skin is intact, they can knock on the door all they want, but they can’t get in

and nothing’s going to happen.”

The sweaty environment athletes typically train in can serve as a double-edged sword.

Sweat does have some scientifically proven antibacterial properties, but it also serves as the perfect vehicle for moving pathogens around to other parts of the body.

While MMA fighters are naturally exposed to the skin-to-skin opportunities that bacteria seek out, the best offense is a good defense. Good personal hygiene and awareness are the best ways to prevent staph and other skin infections. Washing hands often with antibacterial soap and warm water, using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, keeping cuts, scrapes and other open wounds covered until they are healed, avoiding contact with other people’s wounds or bandages, and avoiding sharing personal items such as towels and razors will make a huge difference.

Since bacteria prefer moist places, such as the folds of the elbow, knee, groin area, and underarm, fighters should shower immediately after practice and put on clean, dry clothing. “If a wrestler or fighter chooses to wait until they get home to take a shower, they are serving as an incubator for the bacteria.” explains Bell. Workout clothing and gear should be washed and sanitized as soon as possible after each practice.

In the rare but serious instances when methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA (a type of staph resistant to antibiotic treatment) occurs, treatment may include drainage and irrigation of the infected site to reduce the number of bacteria present, vitamin and antibiotic treatment, and ongoing preventive measures of good personal hygiene. Paying attention to your body’s natural warning signals is another critical way to prevent the spread of possible infections. If the body produces redness, swelling, discharge, pus, or ongoing pain, the area should be checked immediately.

When five-time UFC champion Pat Miletich’s gym was hit with staph earlier this year, Miletich said,” We obviously had no choice but to quarantine everybody who had it. We asked all the fighters to get nasal swabs, to be tested and get cultures done, and made sure everything in the building was disinfected.”

At Miletich Fighting Systems, says Miletich, “we have people inspect themselves and their workout partners and keep the facility clean. We keep an eye out for it.” Only eight of approximately fifty fighters were treated for staph at MFS. Treatment included two weeks of antibiotics, and being quarantined from training until they were cleared by an infectious disease specialist. The clearing procedure followed by anyone at MFS who is suspected of having a possible skin infection.

Miletich adds, “What was interesting is that I have hundreds of students who are grappling and kickboxing that don’t train with my fighters, but train in the same area and use the same equipment my fighters use. None of my students got it, which leads me to believe that generally it’s skin-to-skin contact.”

Skin infections such as staph, impetigo, herpes, ringworm, and scabies are nothing new for those who participate in contact sports. But for MMA fi ghters like Kevin Randleman, who considers staph, “the biggest, baddest voodoo daddy out there,” it can be as serious as an unreleased rearnaked choke. The good news is staph, whether in the gym, hospital, or community, is largely preventable and treatable when caught early.

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