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Football Star Keeps Asthma on the Run

Jerome Bettis joins public education campaign

WEDNESDAY, March 23, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Pittsburgh Steelers star running back Jerome Bettis calls his last asthma attack -- on national television during a 1997 Monday Night Football game in Jacksonville, Fla. -- a turning point in his life.

He stopped breathing while playing, had to be taken off the field where he was given inhalers and a shot to open up his air passages -- and then went back into the game.

"Going back in was the stupidest thing I ever did. And we even lost," he said.

But the dramatic attack forced Bettis to realize he had to take better care of his asthma, which was first diagnosed when he was 14 years old.

"I had been taking my medicine, but not regularly. I didn't stay on top of it because I thought the asthma didn't affect me," said the 33-year-old Bettis, who is the NFL's fifth all-time leading rusher and has played in five Pro Bowls. "But that incident changed my football life, and after that I made a point to get educated."

Bettis found out he was like many asthmatics in mistakenly assuming that occasional discomfort such as wheezing or coughing or waking up in the middle of the night are part of the illness, and that there's no urgency to taking prescribed medications.

"But I learned that when you control your asthma, you don't have those problems," he said. "I don't have any symptoms."

His success in controlling these symptoms while playing such a demanding professional sport has prompted him to join with the American Lung Association in its national educational campaign to make those with asthma aware of the need to take their medications as prescribed. The campaign is sponsored in conjunction with GlaxoSmithKline pharmaceuticals.

Asthma is a chronic disease that affects the airways, leaving them inflamed. The inflammation makes the airways sensitive, and they can react strongly to things to which sufferers are allergic or find irritating. When the airways react, they get narrower and less air flows through to lung tissues. This causes symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, chest tightness and trouble breathing, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

"Approximately 20 million Americans have asthma, and half or more are not as controlled as well as they could be. It's a huge problem," said Dr. Norman H. Edelman, a professor of medicine at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and a medical consultant to the American Lung Association.

Edelman said many children with asthma are reluctant to participate in sports. And children and adults alike often suffer from sleep deprivation because they wake up during the night coughing or wheezing.

"Having chest tightness is not fun, and the psychology of chronic illness depresses you," he said.

But many people don't understand that this suffering is unnecessary. By properly managing the disease -- including the prescribed use of medication -- they can avoid the symptoms of asthma, Edelman said.

To help spread that message, the American Lung Association has developed a simple five-question test for everyone 12 years of age and older who has asthma.

The questions include:

  • how seriously within the previous four weeks have asthma symptoms prevented you from completing work at school or in the office?
  • do asthma symptoms keep you awake some night?
  • how often do you experience shortness of breath?

The results of this simple test are remarkably consistent with results of physical exams performed by doctors, Edelman said.

"The test is just a start," Edelman emphasized. "We are asking that people take their results to their doctors and ask, 'Is my asthma being treated optimally?'"

Edelman said the test is so simple and straightforward that, even though it hasn't been validated for children under 12, he thinks that's a good idea.

"As a physician, I think it makes sense for children under 12 to use it with their parents and doctors."

Added Bettis: "I want to let people know that asthma isn't the end of the world. What happens is that when you find out you have asthma, self-doubt creeps in, but if you can control and manage the asthma it's not a problem. You can still accomplish your goals."

More information

To take the Asthma Control Test, visit the American Lung Association.

SOURCES: Jerome Bettis, running back, Pittsburgh Steelers; Norman H. Edelman, M.D., professor, medicine, State University of New York at Stony Brook, N.Y.; photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Steelers/Mike Fabus
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