May 16, 2013 at 7:06 AM ET
Karen Stultz worries about head injuries every time her Little Leaguer steps up to the plate to bat. As the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand she sucks in her breath, whispering to herself, “Don’t get hit. Please, get out of the way.”
Though head injuries aren’t as common in baseball as they are in hockey and football, they do occur and their impact can be devastating, especially for kids.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that each year more than 9,000 children wind up in emergency rooms with concussions or more severe brain injuries as a result of being hit by a hard-thrown baseball.
The problem is the speeds pitchers hurl the ball these days. Even 9-year-olds can pitch up to 50 mph. That’s a lot of force impacting developing brains.
Making matters worse, “kids are more prone to concussions than adults,” Dr. Robert Cantu, a clinical professor of neurosurgery at the Boston University Medical Center, told TODAY's Kerry Sanders. “Youngsters have disproportionately large heads and weak necks.”
Those weak necks can allow brains to slam violently around in the skull when a kid’s head reels after being hit. And the whiplashed brain can result in long-lasting symptoms.
And it’s not just kids at risk. Adam Greenberg knows that all too well. His major league career was terminated by a 92 mph pitch that struck him in the back of the head. Greenberg suffered from dizziness, headaches, nausea and other post-concussion symptoms for years after that hit.
While there’s no evidence that helmets prevent concussions, some hope that by improving helmets the most severe injuries can be avoided.
This year, sports equipment company Rawlings, for example, is upping the standards for its baseball helmets.
Up till now, helmets were designed to withstand the force of a 68 mph hit.
Now the company is designing a set of helmets with the age of the batter in mind. There’s a helmet for younger players that is lighter and designed to withstand a 70 mph hit. For 12-16 year olds, helmets are a bit heavier, but can withstand the force of an 80 mph strike. Helmets for high school and college age kids can take a 90 mph impact, while those rated for major league baseball players can withstand a 100 mph hit.
Rawlings' senior vice president Art Chu, who oversees research, is also the dad of an 8-year-old player.
"The more peace of mind that parents have that their kids are being taken care of properly with the right equipment, the higher level of participation we'll have in our sports," he told TODAY.
But a parent's search for protective gear may not stop at helmets. Lisa McGreevy, a Northvale, N.J. , mom, is lobbying for kids to wear chest protectors after her son was nearly killed by a baseball to the chest. The boy’s heart stopped and if a quick-thinking mom with CPR experience hadn’t raced over to help, the boy might easily have died.
“I’m forever in her debt,” Lisa McGreevy told the Bergen Record. “I thank God she was there because I don’t know what would’ve happened if she wasn’t.”