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Making the Diamond Less Rough

Sports medicine experts share baseball, softball safety tips

When they think about high-contact sports — which have a higher risk of injury — most people think of sports like football, rugby, hockey, or soccer. By comparison, baseball and softball seem like relatively safe sports.

But even though baseball and softball are not considered "contact" sports, they are associated with a large number of injuries. Hospital emergency departments treat more than 95,000 baseball-related injuries and 30,000 softball-related injuries among players under age 15 each year. 

The number of injuries among adults is also high, with as many as 8 percent of players sustaining injuries each year. 

"Any injury to a young player should be taken seriously," says Kathy Weber, MD, MS, a sports medicine physician at Rush University Medical Center. "Some injuries can lead to more serious or chronic issues if you don't get treated right away, or send the child back onto the field too soon." 

Making safety a priority

Weber offers parents and guardians these tips to help their young ballplayers in the game (Note: These tips apply to adults, too.):

  • Take your child to a physician for a physical exam before he or she starts a training program or plays competitive baseball or softball. The physician can help assess any special injury risks your child may have.
  • Make sure your child wears all the required safety gear every time he or she plays and practices, including recreational games.
  • Insist that your child wear a helmet when batting, waiting to bat or running the bases. Helmets should have eye protectors — either safety goggles or face guards. Not wearing a helmet increases the risk of suffering a concussion.
  • Get your child shoes with molded cleats (most youth leagues prohibit the use of steel spikes). If your child is a catcher, he or she will need additional safety gear: a catcher's mitt, face mask, throat guard, long-model chest protector and shin guards.
  • If your child is a pitcher, make sure pitching time is limited. Little League mandates time limits and requires rest periods for young pitchers. If you have questions regarding pitching limits, please ask your sports medicine physician for recommendations.
  • Insist that your child warm up and stretch before playing. This will help avoid both minor injuries, like pulled or strained muscles, and more serious or chronic issues.
  • Teach your child not to play through pain. If your child is injured, see your physician. Follow all the physician's orders for recovery, and get his or her okay before your child returns to play. This is absolutely vital when it comes to head injuries. If your child suffers any type of blow to the head, make sure he or she is evaluated for concussion and does not return to play until being cleared by a medical professional.
  • Make sure first aid is available at all games and practices.  
  • Talk to and watch your child's coach. Coaches should enforce all the rules of the game, encourage safe play and understand the special injury risks that young players face. In particular, make sure your child's coach teaches players how to avoid injury when pitching, dodge a ball pitched directly at them and slide (for example, not allowing young players to slide head first).
  • Above all, keep baseball and softball fun. Putting too much focus on winning can make your child push too hard and risk injury.

The bottom line: Listen to your child. Do not ignore pain — if they say it hurts and it affects their game, have it checked out. Usually, the earlier we detect a problem, the faster we can return the athlete to competition.

Is the injury serious?

Besides more obvious signs of serious injury, like blood or broken and misaligned joints and bones, one way to determine if an injury is serious is if there is persistent pain.

"Any athlete who has pain that lasts more than 48 to 72 hours should be evaluated by a professional," says Julia Bruene, MD, a sports medicine physician at Rush. 

Commonly missed injuries that usually present as chronic pain and can be potentially career-damaging include:

  • Stress fractures of the spine
  • Growth plate injuries of the arm bones ("Little Leaguer's shoulder" and "Little Leaguer's elbow")
  • Bone/cartilage damage to the elbow (osteochondral fractures)
  • Elbow ligament damage ("Tommy John injury")

"The bottom line: Listen to your child," says Bruene. "Do not ignore pain — if they say it hurts and it affects their game, have it checked out. Usually, the earlier we detect a problem, the faster we can return the athlete to competition." 

Getting back in the game

It helps to wait before returning to the field. "A basic rule of thumb is that an injured athlete — child, teen or adult — can return to play when they have full, pain-free range of motion and at least 85 percent of full strength," says Weber.

When it comes to concussion, Weber recommends proceeding with caution. If a child goes back on the field before fully recovering from a concussion, getting another concussion can have devastating effects.

"In terms of head injuries, the child must have returned to baseline mental status and be completely symptom-free before playing again," she says. "Another caveat would be that they pose no further risk of serious injury to themselves or others by playing." 

Read more about sports-related concussion and how Weber and her colleagues at the Chicago Sports Concussion Clinic at Rush evaluate and treat head injuries in athletes of all ages.

Being prepared: Staying in shape

Another important way to prevent injuries is to have good fitness and health habits.

"It's important that young athletes maintain their cardiovascular fitness in the off-season so they are in great shape to hit the season running," says Bruene. "This is especially important in baseball and softball, which are not as aerobically challenging as other sports such as soccer or basketball." 

To maintain fitness, Bruene recommends the following:

  • At least 30 minutes daily of sustained aerobic activity (such as biking, jogging, running, rowing) 
  • Light to moderate resistance training
  • Observing a low-fat, low-calorie, nutritious diet
  • Getting 9 to 10 hours of sleep every night

Consult your child's physician or a sports medicine specialist for more information about keeping your young athlete safe and healthy.

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