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When child's play hurts

More kids are participating in sports and becoming injured. Making a few changes, such as using lighter baseballs, could reduce sprains and strains.

June 14, 2004|Jeannine Stein | Times Staff Writer

Team sports are becoming increasingly popular among children; that's good news in battling childhood obesity but bad news in terms of the possibility of increased injuries. New research shows that even a few small changes in certain aspects of organized sports may help young athletes stay healthy. Reducing a baseball's weight 1 ounce might decrease injuries in young pitchers. And hiring certified athletic trainers at the high school level could help prevent and treat injuries among older athletes. Both studies were reported this month at the American College of Sports Medicine's meeting in Indianapolis.

When it comes to sports equipment, some of it is scaled down for kids -- baseball bats, basketballs and footballs, for example -- but baseballs used by adults and kids weigh 5 ounces.

Randy Phillips, a master's degree candidate at Arkansas State University, noticed while umpiring for a youth league that young players had a hard time getting the ball to the plate. "They had to change mechanics," he said. "They almost had to push the ball to get it to the catcher, and they had a hard time throwing strikes."

As a former triple-A pitcher, he thought the weight of the ball might be a factor and launched a study of 34 children ages 9 to 12 who had at least two years of pitching experience. Reflective discs were placed on strategic points, such as the shoulder, elbow, wrist, hip, ankle and knee, and the pitchers' movements were analyzed using six infrared cameras. Pitchers threw a 4-ounce ball and a 5-ounce ball 10 times each.

Phillips found no differences in mechanics; the pitchers threw the same way with each ball. But the forces used within the shoulder and elbow joints decreased with the lighter ball, which could translate into fewer injuries. Also, a majority of the participants said they felt more comfortable throwing the lighter ball than the heavier one.

"If you look at a kids' basketball, it's been scaled down to fit a kid's hands," Phillips said. "Most kids can get their hand around a baseball, so I don't think size is the problem."

With some children starting to participate in competitive sports at 7 or 8, reducing injuries, Phillips added, could translate into more years of pain-free play.

More injuries might be prevented or treated appropriately if certified athletic trainers were on hand to help high school athletes.

In a study involving 22 volunteer high school coaches, a 10-week sports medicine course failed to have much effect on most participants' knowledge of such topics as concussion, dehydration, sprains and eating disorders.

Although a few who had taken the course did fare better on a written test than those who hadn't, overall the coaches who had taken the lessons still scored 20 points lower than athletic trainers, said study author Dr. Shane Shapiro, a sports medicine physician with the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla.

"Even with fairly intensive training, coaches are still not going to achieve the level of understanding that trainers have," Shapiro said.

Ideally, each school should have a certified trainer on staff, but Shapiro acknowledged that severe budget cuts in physical education and athletic programs in schools across the country preclude that. The next best thing, he said, is for schools to create partnerships with volunteer athletic trainers, physicians and physical therapists.

"Even a trainer can't be everywhere at once," Shapiro added, "so that's why we thought teaching the coaches some of these concepts would help."

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