- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 20, 2001

An estimated 4.8 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 play organized recreational baseball or softball, and many of them are suffering needless injuries doing so, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

"It´s a problem that in many cases is very preventable," says Dr. Eric Small, a pediatrician specializing in sports medicine in the Boston area. "Players can do some little things that can go a long way to helping reduce injuries."

Dr. Small recently helped the AAP revise its 1994 policy statement on baseball and softball injuries among children a practice the organization frequently does for many of its position papers. The AAP concluded that while baseball and softball still are relatively safe, more can be done to prevent injuries.

The only major change to the new AAP statement, says Dr. Reginald Washington, who also participated in revising it, is a clarification of the academy´s stand on batters´ chest protectors. Because there are no conclusive studies that say chest protectors aid batters, the AAP is not strongly encouraging their use yet, he says.

"Some people thought we were advocating that everybody who plays baseball and softball should wear a chest protector," Dr. Washington says. "But we say only catchers should wear one routinely. The chest protectors that are sold commercially to protect the hitters are sold because of the belief that they protect the heart from getting bruised , but there´s no data that shows the effect of that."

The AAP is maintaining, among other things, its 1994 recommendation that young pitchers limit the pitches and innings they throw per week to minimize stress on their rotator cuffs and elbows. Little League Baseball Inc., the governing body for the sport in the United States, limits pitchers to a maximum of six innings per week and requires mandatory rest periods between pitching appearances in an effort to curb "Little League elbow," or medial elbow pain resulting from overthrowing.

The National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, a national organization that works with many youth sports leagues, also has developed softer softballs and baseballs for younger children in recent years to minimize injuries from players being hit by line drives. A recent review by the Consumer Product Safety Commission said softer balls are less likely to cause serious head injury.

The CPSC advocates the use of three types of safety devices or equipment in softball, baseball and T-ball: batting helmets with face shields, softer "safety" balls and safety release bases, also known as "breakaway" bases because the top part comes loose when players slide in, reducing the chance of their injuring themselves.

"It´s up to the local jurisdictions to implement these kinds of things," says Ken Giles, a spokesman with the CPSC. "We just gather and collect and analyze data. But I believe many local leagues and jurisdictions have some of these things in place already."

Jane Martin, a sports coordinator with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, says many of the organization´s major fields use "safety" bases with rounded tops instead of the breakaway bases advocated by the CPSC. The safety bases the M-NCPPC uses allow runners to slide right over the bag instead of into it, minimizing sprains and fractures just like the breakaway bases do.

"The breakaway bases have to be put together just right, and when they break apart, dirt and rocks get in there and make it difficult to put them together again," she says. "The safety bases we use don´t have those problems, and we think they´re just as safe."

The CPSC reported 88 softball-, baseball- and T-ball-related deaths between 1973 and 1995 (the latest figures the organization has) 68 of them from ball impact and 13 from bat impact. Seven deaths were due to unexplained causes.

Of the 68 ball-impact deaths, 38 resulted from blows to the chest and 21 from balls hitting a player´s head.

The CPSC also reported 162,000 emergency-room visits in 1995 as a result of baseball, softball and T-ball injuries to children ages 5 to 14. Most of those injuries were to children in the 10-to-14 age group. Thirty-five percent of the total injuries were considered severe by the CPSC, including fractures, concussions, internal injuries and dental injuries. More than 50 percent of the children younger than age 11 who were hurt sustained injuries to the head and neck.

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