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Children's soft-core baseballs may not lower risk of fatal injury

Are children's soft-core baseballs safer than standard hardballs, as has been previously reported?

    Not necessarily. concludes a study published in the April1998 issue of the Journal of Trauma. The study. conducted by researchers at the Institute for Preventative Sports Medicine. based at St.Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor-, Mich.. compared nine brands of soft-core baseballs in their ability to reduce the risk of fatal chest-impact injuries in children. The researchers found that most brands did not offer significantly greater protection than a standard hardball. while one brand was potentially more dangerous. The key factor was the mass of the baseballs. The heavier soft-core balls offered less protection. The lighter soft-core balls were safer.

    These findings are significant because previous recommendations by the Consumer Products Safety Commission have suggested that all varieties of soft-core baseballs were safer.

    "The results of this study indicate that the use of the heavier soft-core baseballs may not differ from the use of a standard baseball in relation to the risk of fatal chest-impact injuries." said lead author David H. Janda. M.D.

    He added that the use of such balls may give youngsters a false sense of security. "Children may be more likely to take a greater risk in fielding the ball or not moving away from a wild pitch if they are using the supposedly safer baseball," he said.

    The study used a biomechanical surrogate (known commonly as a crash-test dummy) specially designed for measuring the effect of a blunt impact to the chest. Balls were weighed to determine mass, then "thrown" at the surrogate from a pressurized air cannon at velocities of 40, 50 and 60 mph. Each ball was thrown 10 times at each velocity.

    Gauging the amount of impact energy absorbed by the surrogate's chest, researchers calculated the "viscous criterion" (VC), a measurement of both the amount and rate of chest compression. Used extensively by the automotive industry, the VC has been validated by previous studies as the best predictor of serious chest-impact injury.

    Analysis showed that the lightest soft-core baseball tested, the Incrediball, was the safest, with a significantly lower VC value at all three velocities. Other lighter-mass balls were safer at the highest two velocities. Soft-core baseballs that were similar in mass to a standard hardball had no change in the VC, while the heaviest soft-core baseball, the ADStarr 10, had a significantly higher VC than a standard baseball at impact velocity of 60 mph.

    Timing of the chest impact is also a crucial, but an uncontrollable variable, Dr. Janda noted, because the heart is more vulnerable at certain points during the heartbeat cycle.

    The results of this study suggest that other techniques, such as preventive coaching, need to be implemented when trying to improve baseball safety, Dr. Janda said. "Teaching a child how to get out of the way or turn his chest away from a wild pitch may be more effective in reducing the rate of injuries. Before players take the field, they should realize that protective equipment will not prevent all injuries, and other preventive measures should be practiced."

    Baseball accounts for more fatalities among 5- to 14-year-olds than any other sport, with a total of 88 deaths occurring in the U.S. between 1973 and 1995. Of that total, 38 were caused by baseball impacts to the chest.

Copyright 2001 The Institute for Preventative Sports Medicine. All rights reserved.