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Bronxville: Play Ball, Without Injury

SCARSDALE, N.Y. – It's not all home runs, hot dogs and Cracker Jacks. Baseball is also about getting hurt, and young players are paying the price. And one Scarsdale doctor wants to do something to help prevent those injuries.

Some 6 million children under the age of 18 are involved in baseball leagues, while another 13 million play on their own, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Although baseball is a noncontact sport, most serious injuries come about from contact — with a ball, a bat or another player. From 1994 to 2006, more than 1.5 million children were injured seriously enough to be treated in emergency rooms. Most injuries were minor – muscle pulls or strains, ligament injuries or sprains, cuts and bruises. But 24,350 children required hospitalization, mostly for fractures and concussions.

According to Dr. Scott Haig of New York Orthopedic Specialists , 700 Post Road, Scarsdale, young pitchers can be at risk for shoulder injuries.

"It's often referred to as Little League shoulder," he said, explaining that the soreness can be caused by overstressing the growth plate in the shoulder area. "When a kid's throwing a 50 to 60 mph ball, it puts tremendous torque" on the shoulder, he said.

There is no specific age at which players can throw a certain number or type of pitch, he said. "It has everything to do with puberty. A good rule of thumb is two years after a boy begins shaving, he can start throwing hard, running hard, acting like a man. For girls, two years after the first menses, same thing."

Haig recommends players and parents take a look at two websites: the American Society for Sports Medicine and the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons .

Improved equipment now offers increased protection and many injuries can be prevented by taking common-sense precautions.

Players, parents and coaches should focus on three specific areas to minimize the risk of injury: preparation, the right equipment and knowing a child's limits.

Preparation: Before the season begins, every player should have a complete sports physical that includes a check of overall health and a complete injury history as well as testing for strength, endurance and flexibility.

Preseason conditioning: Many injuries occur at the beginning of the season when kids are more likely to be out of shape. Strength and general conditioning should begin several months before the season starts, should be designed for baseball and should incorporate specific exercises for the position played. For all players but especially pitchers, the shoulder is the area most prone to injury and should be stretched and strengthened before the season.

Pregame warmup: Cold muscles are most prone to injury. While warming up is always important, it is critical during a child's growth spurt when muscles and tendons are tight.

Haig said a pitcher should take at least 20 minutes to warm up, starting with light tossing and working up to full-body throws. He also said young pitcher should always be sure to work on a full-body follow-through and de-emphasize the acceleration at the release point.

Equipment: Improvements in equipment are helping to reduce the rate of injuries. Softer safety baseballs offer increased protection from being hit by a ball; breakaway bases have lowered the number of strains, sprains and broken bones. Catchers should always use a catcher's mitt and wear a helmet, facemask, throat guard, long-model chest protector, protective supporter and shin guards. And all players should wear properly fitted, molded and cleated baseball shoes. Players who wear glasses must have shatterproof lenses and sports frames.

Limits: Overuse injuries can be prevented by not allowing a child to play on more than one team in a season and by not playing and training for a single sport all year round. Strictly enforcing pitch count and inning limits is critical for protecting young pitchers.

Youth baseball pitchers who throw more than 100 innings in a calendar year are more than three times as likely to be seriously injured, according to the American Sports Medicine Institute . No child should play through pain. Persistent pain is a sign of an overuse or acute injury and should keep a child out of the game until it subsides. An injured child should see a doctor.

Coaches and parents can also help prevent injuries by creating an atmosphere of healthy competition, which means not pushing kids to win at all costs or all the time. Putting too much focus on winning can make a child risk serious harm by ignoring the signs of injury and playing in pain.

Said Haig, if a pitcher experiences any pain or soreness, "The first thing to do is stop throwing the ball."

And if that means a more Cracker Jacks and fewer injuries, then everyone wins.

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