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Many Eye Injuries in Children are Caused by Baseballs

March 31 , 1999 -- Baseball, America's national pastime, is a leading cause of sports-related eye injuries in children 5-14 years old, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

More than 137,000 children aged 5-14 received emergency room treatment for baseball related injuries in 1996 (the most recent figures available), according to a safety commission report. Between 1973 and 1995, 88 children died from baseball-related injuries; more than 80 percent of the deaths were caused by ball impact.

Although softer baseballs -- which have been shown to reduce brain injuries and pain on impact -- have been available for about a decade, adoption has moved at a slow-pitch pace because many parents, coaches and young players believe the softer balls feel and perform differently from major league baseballs. Adults also have expressed concern that softer balls might cause greater injuries to young players than the harder baseballs by penetrating further into the eye orbit on impact.

But, according to a new study in the upcoming issue of Archives of Ophthalmology, those impressions are false.

The new study, "Baseball Hardness as a Risk Factor for Eye Injuries," co-written by Stefan Duma, a graduate student in mechanical engineering at the University of Virginia; Jeff Crandall, director of U.Va.'s Automobile Safety Laboratory; and Paul Vinger, a professor of ophthalmology at Tufts University School of Medicine, shows that softer balls hurt less on impact and cause no more eye injuries than the harder balls. The study also showed that young ball players can't tell the difference between major league balls and softer balls.

"The myth we're trying to dispel is that the softer balls can hurt children's eyes more than the hard balls because they penetrate further into the eye orbit on impact," Duma said. "Our research proved that theory is wrong."

To help lessen the many injuries caused by impact from hard baseballs, baseball manufacturers have developed softer baseballs for use in Little League games. In fact, Worth Inc., a baseball manufacturer in Tullahoma, Tenn., has developed a series of balls of varying softness -- known as reduced injury factor, or RIF, balls. But adoption has been painfully slow. Of the 6 million youth league baseballs in use every spring, only about 10 percent are RIF balls, according to Jess Heald, Worth marketing vice president and creator of the softer balls.

"The tradition-bound resistance to the softer balls is not borne out by research," said Vinger. "Several coaches who claimed that the softer baseballs would 'change the feel of the game,' were horrified to discover they could not tell the difference between a major league ball and a ball only 20 percent as hard as the major league ball."

The study on baseball hardness had two goals. First, the authors wanted to measure the force of the balls' impact on the bone structure surrounding the eye and extent of the balls' penetration into the eye orbit. Injuries to the eyeball itself can run from a less severe corneal abrasion to retinal detachment, which may lead to blindness in the affected eye. Second, they sought to determine whether young baseball players could feel a difference between the specially engineered, softer baseballs and major league baseballs.

The researchers designed a series of experiments, which involved building a small, metal box designed to simulate the facial bones surrounding the eye orbit. Duma attached instruments to the box to measure the force of impact. Then, he set up an air cannon to hurl baseballs of varying softness at varying speeds toward the metal box, recording the results on a high-speed digital camera. One series of tests, using the empty box, tracked the extent of penetration of the softer balls into the eye orbit. The second series, using an eye model set into a bed of gelatin, examined the effects of the ball impact on the eye itself.

Their results:

As expected, the mechanical tests showed that the force of impact is greater with the harder baseballs.

Also as expected, the intrusion of the ball into the eye orbit was greater with the softer balls than with the harder balls; however, the rate of injury did not increase because the force associated with the softer balls was lower.

The study also showed that when the softer balls were within 20 percent of the hardness of major league balls, children under 14 didn't have a strong enough grip to feel the difference between the softer balls and major league baseballs. The performance or liveliness of all the balls tested was virtually identical.

"We're not saying that softer baseballs will not cause eye injuries, but they are not more dangerous to the eye than normal baseballs as critics of the softer balls have claimed." Duma said

Their conclusion: "The potential for injury to the unprotected eye from soft baseballs is significant, but not greater than from a major league baseball. Baseballs that are 15 percent to 20 percent of major league ball hardness are recommended for youth baseball because these balls feel like a major league ball, reduce the potential for brain injury, cause less pain on impact, and do not increase the potential for eye injury to the unprotected player. The only way to minimize eye injuries in youth baseball is by means of protective eyewear."

Contact: Charlotte Crystal, (804) 924-6858.

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services


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