“If we can stop a bullet, we can stop a ball”
Baseball is arguably one of the safest team sports. But it’s also where we see the most incidents of commotio cordis, a sudden cardiac arrhythmia caused by a direct blow to the chest. While instances of commotio cordis are rare, one death is too many.
Heart attacks among teen athletes are quite rare, and are most often a result of an underlying physical defect. Commotio cordis has no correlation to the physical health of the victim. According to lab tests at Tufts University Medical Center, it occurs when an object traveling approximately 40 mph makes impact directly over the heart in the milliseconds between heartbeats.
Who’s at risk and why
Catchers, pitchers and infielders are most at risk for blows by high-speed balls. Lacrosse and hockey players are also susceptible to being struck by rocketed balls and pucks. Boys under the age of 15 are most at risk of commotio cordis because their chest walls are still flexible as their bones continue developing into their early 20s.
The best chance victims have for surviving commotio cordis is resuscitation by a defibrillator, a device not housed at every ballfield. And if one is available, there needs to be someone in attendance who has been trained in its proper use.
Equipment manufacturers relying on science to help reduce the risk
But researchers are coming up with another solution. Statistics show that nearly one third of commotio cordis victims collapsed while wearing chest protection of some sort, which means that the protection athletes were given wasn’t good enough.
In January, the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) proposed the first standard for chest protectors used in baseball and lacrosse with the intention of reducing the risk of cardiac events. To meet the standard, manufacturers have to come up with a material that will distribute the force of the blow but not affect movements of the players.
Earlier this year, Mark Link, a Tufts University Medical Center heart specialist, published results of tests run on a model made of foam and a combination of polymers that appears promising. The company that developed the material, Unequal Technologies, plans to test it’s chest protectors and heart-covering shirts against the NOCSAE standard. Other manufacturers are visiting the NOCSAE laboratories to educate themselves on the testing process so they can modify their products to comply with the standard.