Girls’ softball is changing, and so are the injuries

Date Published: 
March 14, 2014

I’m as sick of winter as anyone, but we’ve almost turned the corner. Spring is just about here, and that means it’s time for softball.

Girls’ softball has come a long way from when those of us of a certain age remember how it used to be some years back. It isn’t the game that’s changed so much as the nature of the players. Many experts, including coaches, say that girls are playing as competitively as boys are and at a much higher level. They’re getting bigger and stronger, which is changing the nature of injuries, and they’re hitting the ball harder.

Even though it’s not a contact sport, and is a relatively safe sport compared to many others, girls’ softball has its risks.

In softball, a very large number of injuries come from problems involving muscles used in fielding, hitting, running and pitching. The most current available girls’ softball injury statistics come from data collected by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) from U.S. hospital emergency departments through its National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS). The data reveals that that 28 percent of girls’ softball injuries involve the head and neck, 35 percent involve the upper extremities, and 31 percent involve the lower extremities.

As I always tell you, understanding where the risks are and what you can do to help the softball player in your house can make a big difference in how the season plays out.

As in virtually any sport, some softball injuries involve concussions, sprains, strains and fractures. However, I am going to focus on one of the biggest causes of injury: the overuse of critical muscles. These injuries are occurring in practice just as much as they are in game situations, and they can be very serious. Because the sport involves the use of the same groups of muscles for the repetitive moves any position player makes, it is a real problem.

It’s no surprise that the most typical overuse injury involves the shoulder. Pitchers and catchers are at high risk of shoulder, elbow, wrist and rotator cuff tendonitis and related overuse injuries. Since fielding requires so much shoulder action, the risk is great there, too.

Lower down, the overuse risk involves the knee. Knee tendonitis is another very commonly occurring overuse injury. Players at every position are at risk because players’ knees take a beating from running bases and the moves required in fielding.

Your best defense is offense. Take the appropriate steps to avoid overuse injuries and, when they do happen, act on them right away. Catching these injuries early on and treating them properly can make a lifetime of difference.

As soon as your child shows symptoms, get to a medical professional for a proper evaluation. Chances are you will be told to make sure your star player rests the impacted muscles and takes an anti-inflammatory medication. Recovery may also include physical therapy to rehab the injured muscles and get them safely back to playing condition.

No player should return to practice or game play without clearance from a medical professional. No matter how hard your child may try to convince you to just let them play, don’t do it. The risks are too great.

For every player, overuse prevention means spending some time playing different positions to vary the routine and the muscles being used. For pitchers, there are rules that are supposed to limit the number of pitches and require a rest period between pitching assignments, but these can be ignored.

If your youngster is a pitcher, your job as a parent is to make sure you know what the pitch limit is and what kind of rotation is planned. Talk to the coaches so they know you are counting on them to enforce the rules. You also want to communicate with your child about those rules and regularly ask about whether there is pain in the elbow or shoulder.

If your child is younger than 13, it’s not a good idea to let your child pitch on back-to-back days. Kids older than 13 shouldn’t pitch more than three days in a row.

Prevention also means making sure your child has a proper warm-up routine that includes stretching and a good flexibility-focused conditioning program to help prevent any of these overuse injuries from happening. A three-prong program should include stretches for the wrist, the elbow and the knee, because that will loosen important muscle groups that are used in hitting, running, catching and pitching. Add some pitching and tossing to the mix, and your child is going to be able to avoid a large number of overuse injuries.

If you aren’t sure what a good flexibility conditioning and stretching program should include, there are great community resources. Talk to trainers or to physical therapists with the credentials and experience in sports therapies to give you professional guidance.

A big takeaway here is to pay attention and act at the first sign of a problem. If overuse injuries are not addressed, they can cause permanent damage.

Finally, don’t forget that equipment and the playing field conditions should be a part of your injury prevention strategy. Equipment should include a helmet with a face guard to protect your child from serious head and face injuries that can occur from a hit with a ball or a bat. Mouth guards should always be used, too.

And when it comes to the field, padding on posts and outfield walls makes a big difference, and look for sharp edges on fencing and ruts in the playing surface.

Here’s to a great season! Now, play ball!

Bob Cairo is a licensed physical therapist at Tidewater Physical Therapy He can be reached by calling (302) 537-7260.