To paraphrase Lord Tennyson, in the spring, a young person’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of…baseball. For generations, baseball has been an American tradition, and also a great way for kids to get some exercise along with their first taste of competitive sports. However, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) urges safety on the field to keep ballplayers injury-free.
According to the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission in 2007 more than 203,000 children between the ages of 5 and 14 were treated in hospital emergency rooms, doctors’ offices, clinics and other medical settings for baseball-related injuries.
“Children are not small adults,” says Mark Pinto, MD, orthopaedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine and member of the Academy's Leadership Fellows Program. “Their bones, muscles, ligaments, and tendons are still growing, making them more susceptible to injury, especially from overuse.”
In fact, one type of overuse injury that comes from throwing too many pitches has become so common in children that many health professionals refer to it as “little league elbow.” The AAOS recommends that coaches and parents take precautions to protect children from these injuries so they can continue to play ball for years to come.
The Academy offers the following tips for parents and coaches to help young athletes prevent baseball injuries. Young athletes should:
- Be in proper physical condition to play a sport, and avoid playing when very tired or in pain.
- Know and abide by the rules of the sport.
- Wear all appropriate protective gear, including batting helmets; athletic supporters; shoes with molded plastic cleats; and catcher’s mitts, chest guards, face guards, and knee and shin pads for catchers. Coaches should ensure that the equipment fits properly.
- Always warm up and stretch before exercising. Cold muscles are more likely to get injured, so athletes should warm up with some light exercise for at least 3 to 5 minutes, then slowly and gently stretch the muscles to be exercised, holding each stretch for at least 30 seconds.
- Do not use steroids and other substances to artificially enhance performance. Parents and coaches should be aware of the symptoms that indicate an athlete is using these dangerous substances.
Further caution should be exercised to prevent elbow injuries and other problems from excessive pitching. Coaches should:
- Follow the guidelines on the number of innings that can be pitched (usually a maximum of four to ten innings a week) as specified by the baseball league.
- Keep track of the number of pitches thrown by an individual player. While there is no concrete guideline, a reasonable number is 80 pitches to 100 as the maximum in a game, and 30 to 40 pitches in a practice.
- Remove any child with persistent pain from the game or practice until the pain subsides.
Finally, youth sports should always be fun. The “win at all costs” attitude of many parents, coaches, and peers can lead to injuries, because a young athlete striving to meet the unrealistic expectations of others may ignore the warning signs of injury and continue to play with pain. Support and caution from parents and coaches can be a young athlete’s greatest protection.