Steelers season-ticket holder Tom Duffy didn't have many reasons to cheer during last October's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sidelined with an injury, the back-up QB threw three interceptions and his team lost, 23-17, in overtime — its second straight loss at home.
But the Steelers had their better moments, including an interception that sent Duffy to his feet screaming. The joy was short-lived in more ways than one.
"I screamed and something went off in my head," says Duffy, 37, a pension analyst. "Immediately it was this huge headache, like my head was on fire."
Being the diehard fan that he is, Duffy stayed through overtime to watch the end of the game. By the next morning, though, he knew something was really wrong.
"I was very discombobulated," Duffy says, and he had a lingering headache.
A call to his doctor led to a prompt trip to the emergency room, where he was put through a battery of tests, including a spinal tap, MRI and angiogram.
Blood in the spinal fluid was a tell-tale sign that Duffy had burst a blood vessel in his brain during his outburst at the game. He spent four days in the hospital for observation and additional tests. Then he was discharged with strict doctor's orders. "Going forward, they told me not to scream," he says.
Attention sports fans: sometimes watching the game can be hazardous to your health. While sports can be a great way to blow off steam, bond with friends and the local community, and learn a thing or two about teamwork, there are some risks involved that go beyond gaining a beer belly or chipping a tooth while opening a cold one with your mouth. And the madness isn't just in March, it's year-round.
Heart attacks, choking on hot dogs, and more
Doctors in the emergency room see it all, says Dr. Jeff Kalina, associate medical director of the ER at the Methodist Hospital in Houston.
Patients are commonly treated for extreme sunburn and dehydration, because they drink too much beer in the heat. When it's freezing outside, fans are at risk for frostbite if they're not properly covered up.
Simply eating and drinking while being distracted by a game can be a problem. "People eat hot dogs and they jump up to cheer for a touchdown and choke on the hot dog," Kalina says.
Some people have a nervous habit of playing with the tabs on soda and beer cans, which can lead to fingers getting stuck in the can or people choking on broken tabs. Others try to open a twist-off beer bottle with their biceps, causing lacerations.
"People do the stupidest things," says Kalina. Of course, alcohol is a big factor.
When spectating becomes a contact sport
Sometimes fans hurt other people, making spectating a contact sport. Fights break out at games, drunken fans jump around in their seats and fall onto the people below them, and partying tailgaters get hit by cars. Fans have even thrown TVs out windows and pulled out their pistols.
Kalina recently treated a person who took a bullet in the foot that was shot in the air from an overenthusiastic fan. "Those bullets, when they go up in the air they have to fall down somewhere," he says.
And when people drink all that beer, sooner or later they need to use the facilities. But some, not wanting to wait in long restroom lines or miss even a second of a game for a bathroom break, just hold it, leading to very undesirable consequences.
"We've seen cases where people's bladders get so full and distended that they can't pee anymore," says Kalina.
One of the most common health problems occurs when hyped-up fans scream too loudly. As Duffy's case shows, screaming sometimes can be very dangerous. And people can even suffer hernias from it, as one Seattle Seahawks fan recently discovered. But the bigger risk from screaming is people losing their voices, says Dr. Robert Buckmire, who is director of the University of North Carolina Voice Center in Chapel Hill.
Laryngitis may not seem like a big deal, but it's a sign that the vocal cords have suffered damage, he says.
People can burst blood vessels in their larynx, or voicebox, a problem that usually resolves with rest (i.e. no talking). But too much screaming can lead to lasting problems, such as benign lumps and bumps on the vocal cords that permanently change the sound of a person's voice, causing it to crack and break. Some people become permanently hoarse.
"Obviously, screaming is not advised," Buckmire says. "The larynx is an instrument and you only get one."
The agony of defeat
Being a sports fan also can take a toll on one's mental health. It's just a game, but losing the big one can really hurt, nonetheless.
"Loss is one of the most psychologically disappointing experiences that a person can have," says sports psychologist Ian Birky, director of counseling and psychological services at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.
It's OK to mope around for a day or two after your team loses, but people who don't soon snap out of it may be experiencing more serious depressive symptoms that warrant professional help, Birky says. This is especially true for those who are still depressed, irritable and having problems in their relationships a week or more after the game.
But experts say sports fans are often slow to seek medical help — unless they think their life is truly in danger.
Kalina says his ER is empty during big games. "We don't see these patients until after the game, and then we see everybody," he says.
As for Duffy, he knows to make a beeline for the ER if his symptoms recur. But so far, so good.
His injury didn't stop him from traveling to Detroit this year to watch the Steelers win their fifth Super Bowl championship. He did modify his viewing habits, though.
"I didn't scream," he says. "I was nice and calm."