The U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission reports that in 2010, more than 282,000 kids received treatment at the doctor’s office or hospital for baseball-related injuries. Muscle strains and sprains, cuts and bruises from sliding, and being hit by a ball are the most common reasons players visit the emergency room, according to Ron Clark, MD, an emergency physician at the Hospital of Central Connecticut and author of “Surviving the Emergency Room” (Amazon). Players may also develop chronic overuse injuries in their elbows and shoulders from repetitive motions like throwing, says sports medicine specialist Tony Wanich, MD, attending surgeon in the department of orthopedic surgery at Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, New York. We asked both docs how to keep kids safe on the ball field this season. Here’s their advice.
Stay Strong. Players may skimp on strength training as the game schedule intensifies. This isn’t smart. Pitchers, catchers and outfielders need strong arm and shoulder muscles to protect against overuse injuries, says Wanich. Keep up a strength-training regimen throughout the season. Pay special attention to the rotator cuff, biceps, triceps and forearm muscles.
Warm Up. “Players should warm up with light running or calisthenics before stretching their neck, back, hamstrings, arms and shoulders,” says Clark. A good warm-up helps minimize muscle injuries and builds team spirit.
Inspect the Field. Uneven terrain, broken equipment, and other debris can cause falls or cuts. Ensure a safe field of play. “Ankle sprains, fractures and dislocations can occur when players slide into the bases,” says Clark. Use breakaway bases that detach from the anchor to avoid these injuries.
Protect Teeth. “Each baseball season, players come to my emergency room with missing teeth and mouth lacerations from being hit with a ball in their face or from sliding into the plate face-first,” says Clark. All players should wear a mouth guard to protect their teeth. Little kids should also use softer baseballs to prevent injuries when they are struck by a ball.
Wear Protective Gear. Batting helmets and face shields reduce the risk of traumatic injuries. Make sure your kid’s equipment fits correctly and is worn properly. Players should wear batting helmets when they are “on deck,” at the plate and when they’re running the bases.
Focus on Form. “Young players should develop accuracy and control through good pitching mechanics,” says Wanich. Encourage novice pitchers to master the fastball before moving on to other types of pitches. Players often compensate for fatigue with changes to their throwing form, such as dropping a shoulder or flinging their arm too hard, says Wanich. That leads to injury.
Drink Up. Kids are more vulnerable to heat-related illness because their bodies produce more heat and they sweat less than adults. High humidity increases the effect of hot temperatures. Learn to recognize signs of heat rash, heat stroke and dehydration. Bump up players’ fluid intake with sports drinks, juice or popsicles. Good hydration is the best way to prevent overheating.
Rest. Little League pitch count guidelines prescribe the number of days of rest a pitcher should get in between games, based on the age of the player and the number of pitches thrown. “Most coaches are well-educated about these guidelines,” says Wanich, “and they try to follow the rules.” But kids who play on several leagues or who practice in the backyard with parents may overdo it without the coach’s knowledge. When it comes to pitching practice, more isn’t better. Insist on some downtime.
Most minor aches don’t require a doctor’s care. Treat post-game pains with rest, ice and anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen, says Wanich. If your child’s discomfort lasts more than a day, limits his range of motion or prevents him from doing his normal activities, seek help from a sports medicine specialist. Serious repetitive use injuries can develop in as little as two to four weeks, but most can be treated without surgery if they are addressed early.