Scientists design chest protectors for position players

Mike Podesta and Mike Podesta

A little league baseball player lays motionless on the infield dirt, the life knocked out of the young player in a matter of seconds. Cause of death? Fatal impact to the chest from a sharp line drive off of another player’s bat. According to the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, in the last decade, at least 25 children hit in the chest by a baseball have died.

According to Wood County Hospital Athletic Trainer Neil Thompson, Commotio Cordis is the medical term for the cause of death. Commotio Cordis occurs when there is a disruption of the heart’s electrical system resulting from a blunt impact to the chest that leads to cardiac arrest.

“When the heart beats there is a contraction and relaxation state,” Thompson said. “When the ball hits the heart in between the two phases the electric current is hit out of whack and it goes out of sync. This makes the heart pump way too fast causing cardiac arrest.”

To help alleviate the problem, scientists have designed chest protectors that are worn underneath a player’s uniform. Thompson said that chest protectors are made of high density plastic. On the inside of the protector is a donut-shaped foam or felt ring that covers the heart plate.

Though chest protectors are out on the market, they have not been a hot commodity. While coaches admit that at least one of their players has been hit in the chest during a practice, not a single player wears a chest protector at the BG Youth League. “I had a kid yesterday during practice get hit in the chest,” Said JD Campbell, a youth league coach of 9 and 10-year-olds, said. “He shook it off and got right back in there. I know that there’s a protective reason behind the chest guards. If it’s something that hinders the player’s ability to naturally learn the game, I’m not sure I like it. I think that the quicker kids can learn the game, that’s the best safety precaution they can take.”

Ken Yonker, another BG Youth League coach, said chest protectors would be a good idea to use during practice but could never see an entire team wearing them during a game.

Yonker said he makes sure that all of his players are safe on the field. He positions his players so none of them are at risk of injury.

“I do keep a couple kids in the outfield because the kids hit the ball so hard. There’s no way that I can put them in the infield.” A study conducted by the Institute for Preventative Sports Medicine in Ann Arbor, Mich, found that chest protectors designed to reduce injury failed to provide a significant benefit and in some cases actually increased the risk of injury.

The study tested nine types of chest protectors.

Researchers fired the baseballs at a crash dummy previously used to test auto safety. The balls were fired at 80 mph and 90 mph, the speed at which previous studies consistently produced cardiac arrest in a model of a 10-year-old.

Based on the data collected, the researchers concluded that using a chest protector may actually increase the amount of momentum and force delivered to the chest.

According to Thompson, he has not seen or heard of a death or a significant chest injury in Wood County, though he does remember an incident in Columbus involving a youth league player.

“I don’t want to de-emphasize the importance of safety, but people can overreact to a situation,” Thompson said. “For example two or three years ago an incident happened in Columbus and the demand for chest protectors was very high. Everyone wanted to buy one. They run $40-$50. Stores actually went out of stock because of the demand. This was a case of people becoming overly concerned.”

Thompson said that when looking at the number of deaths caused by chest injuries people have to consider that over a million kids around the country play little league baseball and only a select few are actually injured. “No one wants to be that 25 out of a million, but people are overreacting,” he said.