After observing a number of bacterial skin infections in September, including one documented case of a dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the Athletics Department has chosen to keep the whirlpools in Payne Whitney Gymnasium and the Smilow Field Center closed indefinitely — a decision that continues to frustrate a number of Elis.
The closing of the hot and cold whirlpools last semester may have contributed to a number of athletic injuries in the fall, some members of the athletic community said. But representatives of the department and independent sports medicine experts said the monetary and hygienic costs of the whirlpools can outweigh the benefits, and alternative treatments can be just as effective for the healing of injuries.
In early September, Director of Sports Medicine Chris Pecora decided to shut down the hot and cold whirlpools because a number of football players contracted bacterial skin infections, he said. This move drew criticism from some athletes who use the facilities regularly, especially runners.
Pecora said although the whirlpools were not contaminated, he chose to close the facilities in order to prevent the infections from spreading. A growing number of universities are also discontinuing the use of whirlpools for the same reason, he said.
“It’s not just Yale,” he said. “There are other universities that have the same problem.”
Among the infected players, there was one case of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a debilitating staph infection that is resistant to many antibiotics and can cause death in rare cases, Pecora said. Athletes are at a particularly high risk of contracting MRSA from shared towels, razors and athletic equipment, according to the Centers for Disease Control Web site.
“That’s what brought us to really follow the letter of the law with our policies,” Pecora said. “It’s definitely a safety precaution.”
Since the facilities were closed, the department has offered athletes alternative treatment methods, including moist heat and ultrasound in place of the hot whirlpools and individual ice packs and baths instead of the multi-person cold whirlpools, Pecora said.
But a number of Elis said the alternatives have proven less effective than the whirlpools, and the administration must continue working to find a viable solution.
Men’s cross country captain Pat Dantzer ’06 said he and other runners had relied on the ice baths to help ease stiffness and soreness throughout his time at Yale, and by closing these facilities, the department has not left the team with other acceptable options.
“There are two things you need to run: shoes and ice baths,” he said. “Ice baths are far superior to ice bags. It’s pretty much essential for injury prevention for our sport.”
Now the cross country team uses large trash cans filled with ice and water as a substitute for the whirlpools, runner Jared Bell ’09 said. Although the make-shift system is somewhat inconvenient, the trash cans are better than no ice baths at all, he said.
Former football captain Jeff Mroz ’06 said the whirlpools are important for the football preseason, and many players were upset when their use was discontinued.
“I know a lot of people are mad about it,” he said. “Without them, you tend to get more sore, and your body doesn’t recover as quickly.”
Chandler Henley ’06, the current football captain, said he thinks many athletes would risk infection in order to continue using the whirlpools. He said football, like many other sports, is full of health risks, and not having the whirlpools may be more costly for individual players than risking infection.
“I would think that if you have to sign a waiver [to use the whirlpools], there are going to be plenty of athletes that would do that,” Henley said.
Men’s cross country head coach Dan Ireland said although he understands the reasoning behind the decision to close the whirlpools, he thinks the lack of large ice baths for his players affected the team’s performance in the fall.
“It affects our team greatly,” Ireland said. “It enables our bodies to recover quicker from a lot of injuries.”
He said the large ice baths are more effective in preventing soreness and small injuries than ice packs because runners do not always know exactly what areas are going to hurt after a workout.
Ireland said the team experienced more minor injuries during the fall season than during any other season in his seven years coaching cross country at Yale.
“It’s hard to say it was the ice baths, but that is the common factor in this season that hasn’t happened in any other seasons,” he said. “I know it affected our performance.”
But some medical experts said whirlpools do not assist in injury prevention, and the risk of spreading MRSA and other bacterial infections can justify shutting them down. Dr. Lynn Millar, professor of physical therapy at Andrews University and fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, said cold whirlpools are not necessary for injury prevention but are good primarily for soreness relief and injury treatment.
“As an ex-distance runner, I like to have the cold whirlpool afterwards, but really there is nothing that shows that it decreases injury rates at all,” she said.
While whirlpools can be used for injury treatment, other options can be just as effective, said Dr. Jon Schriner, director of McLaren Sports Medicine Centers and the Michigan Center for Athletic Medicine.
“An alternative would be to use cold packs on their injury without a water mechanism,” he said. “It would be just as effective and much more specific.”
Schriner said bacterial infections, which have been spread through whirlpools, are posing an increasingly serious threat as they become more common.
“Once you get a resistant staph infection, you’ve got a serious problem,” he said.
Football head coach Jack Siedlecki said his players relied heavily on the whirlpools during camp, but he knows how dangerous staph infections can be.
“Our players used the whirlpools every day. The ice baths are a great recovery tool in preseason,” Siedlecki said. “[But] with serious health issues it is always best to be overly cautious.”
Ireland said some of the discontent on his team results from seeing fully operational whirlpool facilities during competitions at other schools.
“We’ve gone to other meets, and there are ice baths available to get in,” he said. “That’s where the kids are a little frustrated.”
Harvard will also shut down its whirlpools at the end of the year for renovations, said Stacie Barlow, Harvard’s head athletic trainer. But the Crimson will replace the current system with new, chlorine-based whirlpools that will be able to control infection more effectively, she said.
“You can control infection with the kind of whirlpools we have and Yale had, but it is quite expensive,” Barlow said.
She said the whirlpool systems used by Yale previously and Harvard now are impractical not only in terms of time and money, but also in terms of waste because the whirlpools must be drained and disinfected between uses in order to maintain sterility.
Pecora said Yale is not currently considering new whirlpools because the treatments offered by the department seem to be working. He also said he does not believe the lack of whirlpool access led to an increase in injuries on the cross country team because a similar increase was not observed on any other team that used the facilities.